Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Do Atheists and Agnostics Do Evil Acts or Think Evil Thoughts?

There is a thread of the atheist vs Christian debate that has both sides believing that Atheists don't wish to follow Jesus because they would need to give up their evils ways.  Honestly, most intellectual atheists don't seem to fit that pattern.  On the other hand, practical atheists or nominal believers would commonly fit that statement.  They may be hard party folks, given to sexual sin, desiring to keep lying, cheating on taxes, etc. 

In fact, I would go so far as to say, most atheists I have debated at length are more inclined to think that they are not sinners, and thus would have no need of a savior.  A very close friend of mine has stated that they never lie, cheat, steal, etc.  And from what I know of this person, he/she might be close to correct. 

So, I'm curious to hear from non-believers.  Do you do acts which you consider to be very inappropriate and worthy of judgment by somebody?  Do you fail to do things that you probably should do that if these failings were known would cause others to judge you harshly?  Or do you see yourself as being very, very nice, friendly, unselfish, law abiding, etc.  If yes, is it possible that you project your perfection onto others and believe that were it not for .... fill in the blank .... bad parenting, government, religion, poverty, bad luck, bad friends .... that everyone would be close to perfect like you.   I know this last bit seems a bit "nasty," but I can't think of another way to get the subject on the table.

If you spend a bit of time in the atheist websites, I think you will gather that most atheists see themselves as better than others, much smarter and certainly wiser.  But they also see themselves as not needing anyone to help them make wise decisions.  They would be the "good person" that many of liberal political thought think is the norm.

Where have I gone wrong?


Bernardo said...

Humanist morals tend to be fairly utilitarian, i.e. it aims to optimize everyone's happiness and well-being. Yes, I know that happiness and well-being, and how to best optimize them, are very hard to define. But we can agree that it has to do with things like freedom, justice, order, etc. (i.e. people are happier when they are free to pursue activities they enjoy, when everyone has pretty much the same access to opportunities and people get what they deserve, when systems are predictable and reliable and understood... Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a good way to start thinking about this methodically), so it is good to maximize those things as much as possible.

So for a humanist, a "wrong" action either...

- ... unfairly subtracts a little from others' happiness/well-being in order to increase one's own (i.e. is selfish), or

- ... subtracts from one's own happiness/well-being by failing to take full advantage of opportunities (i.e. lacks discipline and willpower, is lazy and impulsive).

It is bad for others when you're selfish, and it's bad for you when you're lazy.

Am I sometimes unfairly selfish? Sure. (One could argue that most people in the US are. Most of us could afford to donate thousands of dollars every year to the world's poorest people, since there is no real need for any of us to drive a car worth more than ~$20,000, live in a house bigger than a tiny urban apartment, or own clothes and gadgets worth several times what most people on earth make in a year).

Am I sometimes lazy, to my own detriment? Sure I am. (I keep talking about how hard it is to use reason to overcome those animal impulses that we evolved when we were living in a different environment).

Bernardo said...

Three questions asked in your post:

1) Can atheists sin?

If you define "sin" as "doing something unfairly detrimental to others' happiness/well-being or needlessly detrimental to one's own", then yes. Like I say above, I do that sometimes. However, this defines "sin" so broadly that it just means "doing something wrong". The word "sin" really means disobedience to some divine law, command, or expectation. It's like the word "illegal", not about an action's consequences to people's happiness/well-being, just about how those actions measure up to a set of rules (which theoretically is in place to optimize happiness/well-being, but in practice doesn't quite). The word "sin" assumes that the world was deliberately created as part of a divine plan, and says that your action runs counter to that plan.

(We can set aside for a moment the fact that this makes no sense because surely an all-knowing God would be able to predict your actions and expect you to sin precisely as you do, so therefore your "sinful" actions must have been built in to the divine plan).

2) How do you feel about other people who are selfish and/or lazy?

That's a complicated one. The anger we feel at unjust selfishness is a neural phenomenon that's very deep in our brains, exhibited by babies and by some animals. Our desire to punish unjustly selfish people is about as primal as our desire to not harm our close relatives. So if you expect me to be able to construct some intellectual argument for why we should feel angry at selfish people, I'm afraid it's not any more complicated than "People like justice and dislike selfish injustice".

As for people who are lazy... I empathize with them and hope that they can find some tools to help them harness more out of the opportunities that they have.

3) Do atheists think they're better or smarter or wiser than everyone else?

Better? No.

Smarter? Some atheists do. Some atheists think that the reason why theists can't abandon theism is because theists don't know enough about how the world works to trust that it is mechanical. This is not true, though: The reason why theists can't abandon theism is because they crave teleology (and possibly because they don't like the thought of being mortal), and that's not a function of how smart you are.

Wiser? Heck no! Atheists need as much help making decisions as anyone else. There are many decisions I can make on my own, but on some decisions I consult other people who are in a better position than I am to foresee the consequences of my taking one option or the other. What atheists DON'T need help from is some ancient sub-optimal set of rules guessed by nomadic tribal leaders and later edited by committees of a power-hungry empire.

Randy Kirk said...

So what if I define happiness as having the biggest palace on the planet, having adulterous relationships, and using up far more of the planets resources than anyone else. (Like Al Gore.) Am I incorrect in my understanding of what is moral?

If I have massive income and only give a few dollars to charity like the Clintons and the current occupiers of the White House, am I immoral?

What should the value of the car I drive be if I want to be seen as moral? Or should I only drive a bicycle?

What kind of income is just? If I am motivated to work very hard and I make a great contribution to science or the improvement of life for others, is it immoral for me to retire early, or to only work a few weeks a year or to buy a huge diamond ring for each ear? What if that contribution is only to entertain?

Randy Kirk said...

The reason why theists can't abandon theism is because they crave teleology (and possibly because they don't like the thought of being mortal), and that's not a function of how smart you are.

I would suggest to you that most people come to an adult decision to trust Jesus because they realize that they are sinners and that they can't stop sinning, and they finally decide they would like to stop.

They believe that the way to make this step is Jesus, who offers them not only a way to move away from the imprisonment that sin has created for them, but also to gain forgiveness for sins already created, and even those that will still be created as they are being perfected.

The hope of heaven is a good thing. The belief that they can be unconditionally loved by Jesus is a huge thing. The thought that life has purpose beyond working and playing for 70 years and dying is a great realization that usually comes later.

Start asking folks you know what caused them as adults to come to Christ, I think the vast majority will say the above.

Bernardo said...

I mis-spoke. To use more precise wording: A craving for teleology, discomfort with mortality, a lack of trust in naturalism, etc, are CAUSES for theism. Wanting to be a better and happier person, wanting community, and deliberately deciding to worship God/Jesus towards those ends, are REASONS for being religions.

(I said "reasons" and meant "causes", you said "causes" and meant "reasons").

Much like the Darwinian impulses that I keep saying that we're always fighting, and much like the borderline-immoral behaviors you described, religion is something people WANT to do. The reasons we use to rationalize that want, may or may not correspond to what actually causes that want. This is true of beliefs specifically: We believe what we want a-priori, and then tailor our observations and models and thoughts post-hoc so that our desired beliefs can be preserved.

In short: Just because people say that certain reasons are the causes of them going to church, doesn't mean they're correct in their introspection.

Bernardo said...

As for your previous comments; I don't have rock-hard answers to those questions. But the realization that they are non-trivial questions, and that they cannot be answered simply by measuring people's actions against a set of ancient guesses, is the first step towards thinking about ethics in a good, consequentialist way.

In a way, ethics is like science: A lot of progress has been made in the past couple of thousand years, and there is much progress left to go. We may or may not ever perfect our models. But we do know that the models presented in ancient religious texts, while they got a lot right, are inferior to the models developed more recently by observing people. (The ancient models were also built by observing people [If people who eat shellfish tend to get sick, tell everyone to not eat shellfish] but today we can observe more people, more methodically, and with better tools).

I am going to write a post about ethics, right and wrong, justice, whether it's possible to optimize happiness and well being even though they're impossible to define precisely, etc. Stay tuned. I'll do it on Tuesday at the latest.

Bernardo said...

This is too good!


Randy Kirk said...

Is the beauty of the cartoon that you don't know whose ox is being gored?

Bernardo said...

Oh, I'm as guilty of post-hoc rationalization as anyone. But I'm the one recognizing it rather than making ad-populum fallacies.

Randy Kirk said...

I think most thinking folks understand something about their biases. In my case from sold out Christian to almost atheist and back, should give me a pass.

As to not making ad-populum arguments: You wouldn't be referring to most intellectuals are atheists or almost all scientists agree?

Bernardo said...

Have you ever heard me say "almost all scientists agree"?

And I said "most intellectuals are atheists" not as a support of atheism, but to show that your "most intellectual giants are believers" point was factually incorrect (not just logically irrelevant).

Randy Kirk said...

I am truly excited to see your post on Tuesday or sooner. You may want to try starting with a definition of human happiness. Then, just after that do a Euclidean proof of the trisection of an angle for the grand finale.

Bernardo said...

I cannot define human happiness. But, like "health" which is similarly non-definable, science can still... No, no, no, must save it for the post. I'll do it tomorrow.

Page1Listings.com said...

Back to definition of human happiness. You can't advance towards something you can't define.