Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Compassion easier without belief

Posted by Ann on August 27, 2011

“If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist?…Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”–Thomas Jefferson

One of my peeves is believers who argue their beliefs by asking nonsense questions that really don’t make sense, and for which there is no answer to convince them from their firmly entrenched beliefs. It’s like some kind of game they like to play I think. I don’t like this game. Ask me a real question but not these play questions. They irritate me, because then I feel sucked into the game by answering, or rude for not, and I know when I do answer they will simply write me off in their heads even though I know my answer is better than anything they think is true in their heads…For instance the questioning of my morality, “If you don’t believe in God, then where do you think morality comes from?” My first thought when hearing this questions is “This has got to be one of the stupidest questions.” At least for me, it really is dumb. Of course I don’t tell the person they are being a dumb ass, but I sure am thinking this is gonna be another one of those dumb interactions where they listen politely to my answer and then politely write me off. And yes, I have already written them off, that is why I don’t ask them why morality has to come from God. That would be a dumb ass thing to do, lol! The answer: Of course there is no cosmic code we live by, morality is in the mind, the same place as our reason. There is no police officer in the sky…

Anyway, I picked up Godless again today and opened it by chance to chapter twelve, “For Goodness Sake”. Once again Barker is inside my mind. I wish I was as articulate in expressing my thoughts as him, but then why not let his writing help me express myself? Some do it a hell of a lot better than others, so here’s a selection from the chapter that gets me down to a T. So theists, next time you ask me the dumb ass question about my morality, read this and then let’s move on to more jovial interactions like hanging out, knowing we have serious differences of thoughts.

“How does an atheist account for the existence of objective moral values?” is a question I often hear. “If you don’t believe in God, then what is your basis for morality?” To me the question is obvious: we atheists find our basis for morality in nature. Where else would we look?

Most atheists think moral values are real, but that does not mean they are “objective.” They can’t be. A value is not a “thing”—it is a function of the mind (which is itself a function). To be objective is to exist independently of a mind. So, an “objective value” is an oxymoron; the existence in the mind of something that is independent of the mind.

Most atheists think that values, though not objective things in themselves, can be objectively justified by reference to the real world. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences can be objectively measured.

Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that morality exists in the universe—that it is a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word “morality” is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds. If no minds existed no morality would exist.

There is no big mystery to morality. Morality is simply acting with the intention to minimize harm. Since harm is natural its avoidance is a material exercise. Organisms suffer as they bump into their environment and each other, and as rational animals with some ability to anticipate the future, we humans have some choice about how this happens. If we try to minimize harm and enhance the quality of life, we are moral. If we don’t, we are immoral or amoral, depending on our intentions. Even if we make a mistake, we can still be called moral or ethical if it is truly our intention to minimize harm. And the way to avoid making a mistake is to try to be as informed as possible about the likely consequences of the actions being considered. To be moral atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no cosmic code book directing our actions.

Of course, relative to humanity, certain general actions can be deemed almost uniformly right or wrong. Without the Ten Commandments would it never have dawned on the human race that there is a problem with killing? Prohibitions against homicide and theft existed millennia before the Israelite story of Moses coming down from Sinai.

The way to be moral is to first learn what causes harm and how to avoid it. This means investigating nature—especially human nature, who we are, what we need, where we live, how we function, and why we behave the way we do.

Why should I treat my neighbor nicely? Because we are all connected. We are part of the same species, genetically linked. Since I value myself and my species, and the other species to which we are related, I recognize that when someone is hurting, my natural family is suffering. By nature, those of us who are mentally healthy recoil from pain and wish to see it ended.

Of course, we often act in positive ways to stop the pain of others. This is compassion. Although I don’t think there is a “moral imperative” nor a “compassion imperative:–you can be considered moral if you are passively not causing unnecessary harm—I do think most human beings who are mentally healthy will empathize with the sufferings of others and will naturally want to reach out. Atheists can perhaps express compassion more easily than believers because we are not confused by:

  • Fatalism: “Whatever happens is God’s will.”
  • Pessimism: “We deserve to suffer.”
  • Salvation: “Death is not the end.”
  • Retribution: “Justice will prevail in the afterlife.”
  • Magic: “Pray for help.”
  • Holy war: “Kill for God.”
  • Forgiveness: “I won’t be held responsible for my mistakes.”
  • Glory: “Suffering with Christ is an honor.”

Since this is the only life we atheists have, each decision is crucial and we are accountable for our actions right now.

Yet notice how leading theists deal with the real world: “Ye have the poor with you always,” said the “loving” Jesus, who never lifted a finger to eradicate poverty, wasting precious ointment on his own luxury rather than selling it to feed the hungry (Matthew 26:6-11). “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ,” Mother Teresa added. “I think the world is much helped by the suffering of poor people.” So much for theistic compassion!

Jefferson may have been wrong to call compassion an “instinct” because many appear not to have it—it seems optional. Or perhaps he was right and the “compassion gene” (to oversimplify) varies across the population like any other human feature (height, intelligence, musical ability, etc.), and some of us have more of the instinct than others have. But it is fortunate that there are enough of us who love life to protect ourselves from those who don’t. We have systems of law, enforcement, justice and defense. We encourage kind, ethical actions through moral education and critical thinking. And though there is no cosmic moral imperative, all of us who value life and consider ourselves moral—atheists and believers alike—can choose to actively exhort others to join us in expressing our innate feelings of altruism and compassion.

Compassion is, after all, a characteristic of being human. When someone commits a horrible act, what do we say? “That was an inhuman thing to do!” We assume that the natural “human” attitude is nonviolent and peaceful. We are not corrupt, evil creatures. A few of us are off to the side of “saintliness” (to borrow a word), and a few of us are off to the other side, the side of mental disease, with sociopaths and criminals. On the bell curve of morality and compassion, however, most of us fall somewhere in the large middle area.

Many believers, including Christians who are ordered to “bring into captivity every thought unto the obedience of Christ,” have an underlying distrust of human reasoning. Yearning for absolutes, they perceive relativism—the recognition that actions must be judged in context—as something dangerous when it is the only way we can be truly moral.

Theists are afraid people will think for themselves; atheists are afraid they won’t.

It is interesting the irrationality of compassionate, kind people who yearn for world peace, who understand the value in humanity, yet internally still believe God is necessary for morality to prevail in the world…

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4 Responses to “Compassion easier without belief”

  1. dsc01 said

    I’m certainly on the same page with you. The philosophy behind the question is absurd to the extreme. The tone of the person who asks the question is often rather triumphant, as if to say, “Ha! THIS will sink you, since it is paradigmatically obvious that morality MUST be rooted in the opinions of some individual!”

    The gaping hole in this idea is that individual opinion is clearly an AWFUL standard for morality. If the code-maker decides that He thinks that raping babies is commendable, will that make it so? Of course not. Now, the theist will argue that the bestower of morality, being perfect, would never decree such a thing, but such an assertion refutes the idea that a being creates morality. Baby raping will ALWAYS be wrong to someone who is perfect, suggesting that morality must reside in something outside of any entity’s opinions.

    Naturally, believers–so accustomed to putting the cart before the horse–don’t see the logical flaw at all. Fundamentalists have learned to take cognitive dissonance as a sign of God’s “mysterious ways,” and I fear that many feel a mystical sense of exhilaration at the clear paradoxes of their faith, altogether foregoing a more appropriate sense of befuddlement.

  2. Ann said

    I am kinda reading Schermer’s “The Science of Good & Evil” (well browsing it). In a teacup, I think what people have a hard time accepting is we are all biologically almost identical, and have been for thousands of years. Genetically, we are not all that different from those ancient people who first started talking and using tools. Our morality has its roots in both our cultural history and our genes. Much of it is simply practical…how do you rape a baby anyway, and with all that pooping and peeing and vomiting, who would want to?

    Anyway, regarding God’s mysterious ways (U2?), you make me think about the taoist kind of people who believe coincidences point to a mysterious meaning, some deep revelation. For instance, they point to something outside ourselves, a supernatural force or something like that. Even if a supernatural force connecting all things did exist, what is the point of coincidence? Most coincidences are completely inane and don’t provide any insight into anything. I like to mess around and create coincidence sometimes just for the heck of it. And how many ideas do we have in our heads anyway? Eventually coincidences are bound to happen simply from cultural and language similarities, especially when you live in the culture of your primary language, with people who are thinking and doing much as you…Relax and live, I say.

    • Ann said

      Some more thoughts as I procrastinate on a Monday morning. There is nowhere in the Bible where it says “No child abuse”. In fact, during Biblical times youth marriage was a norm, especially of young girls to much older men. In the Kuna tribe I lived in as a child, it was the norm to marry around 12 or 13 when a woman hit puberty. Usually to a much older man. Over time in many world cultures we have begun to recognize and respect children, especially female children, and also women, as equal to men, just as we have people of all ethnicities…I have to say I really hate stereotyping of women that is negative, not because it isn’t sometimes based in some general truth, but because it takes away the fact that intelligence-wise, and in the ability to conceptualize logically, women are equal to men…we find about an equal scattering in these brain functions in both these populations if we graph them.

      What is hard to imagine is the people who have their own kids and sexually violate children. To me, it shows a sexualizing of people’s bodies as separated from their minds (as though the mind is not part of the body). There must be a trivializing of the mind’s importance. I’ve never met a child with an adult brain. I suppose I have met the opposite though, which may explain some of this…Sexual fantasies are often about people almost as separate from real people. Probably where you get womanizers and the like, or men who like childlike adults. I think once you develop a healthy respect for ALL humans, most of this kind of behavior and fantasy disappears. There is nothing sexually appealing to me about immature, unintelligent, or illusioned people….unless I separate them from their brains like we do with adult porn movies/mags and strip clubs. I can dig the fantasy, but not the reality… who wants that? Again, it seems like this is most frequently males, although I think it’s overall getting better in the world, which again seems to indicate cultural issues around ideas regarding women. Is there some kind of similar brain function working here with both pedophiles and sexists? I don’t know. Clearly we are not talking about the same brain disorder. It also seems similar to harboring religious ideology or supernatural beliefs in the mind. Some people develop a mind from childhood that can do this kind of separation in their minds. Morally, the world is changing I hope.

      • Ann said

        A friend recently wrote online that text online is frequently misunderstood. Over the years I’ve come to recognize most sarcasm, I think, although it would be cool to have sarcasm text like we have tone of voice or context in verbal interactions… However, when writing seriously, I am not as good as some, like the moderator of this site for instance (props), at fleshing my thoughts out when I write. Dislike something I say because you don’t agree, and tell me why, but don’t dislike something I say because you misunderstand (or something like that anyway….haha!). On this note, although nobody in this instance informed me they misunderstood, I wanted to clarify what could be taken as illogic.

        On the topic of men and women and morality, I think there are plenty of women who can objectify. The difference is more in the power differential I think. Watching Mad Men on Netflix, I’m realizing how much our perceptions of women have changed over the past 40 years, and how much they haven’t. It’s kinda strange, but I am starting to realize it’s not just women who are lumped into groups for descriptive purposes, but men too. Generalizations can be useful, but they are not set in stone truths…there are plenty of women who objectify men, just as there are pedophile women. But from the data we have on pedophiles and pederasts, these are mainly men. And as we know, although more women use porn and go to strip clubs than ever before, it is still primarily a male domain. Women seem to have a more difficult time separating the body from the mind of people. This is just my observation, and it has maybe been studied by social scientists, but I wonder if there is a similar area of the brain that is developing differently in some people. And maybe because women have traditionally in the world culture been perceived as less capable than men to begin with, we look for more mature men to take care of us and they a pretty woman who may not be as logical and more emotional, since that’s the way women are (lol!). As I write this, of the handful of atheists/agnostics I know of, there are several men with Christian wives, but no wives with Christian men. This is totally an observation, so who knows the reason, maybe because I know so few female atheists?

        I am actually kind of excited about the future of evolutionary biology, and what it may discover in the future about our brains…some day it may lead to different advice about child rearing, or the knowledge of brain development on its own may lead to some kind of cultural switch in how we raise our children over time? I wonder if what they will discover will significantly impact our knowledge regarding the belief engine brain enough to eliminate, over time, religious ideology as well and lead to a gentler, although probably always power driven world, where people may still believe strange things, but things with less damaging impact on the lives of individuals. I’m hoping at the very least, most dogmatically religious will switch over to more of the Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coehlo, Wayne Dyer kind of beliefs…I see a lot of Christians now holding these kind of beliefs in their brains….respect to those people! Well, back to work. I am taking a break off social networking for a couple of days and now I’m putting in time on this site, hahahahah!!! Peace out fellow humans, lol!

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