The last main need for a world view, as I see it, is a conception of good and evil. Evil is an especially challenging concept, one that theists often use more than atheists. But perhaps it can be broken down into more commonly understood terms as wrongness, badness, negativity, or perhaps even as the more destructive elements of such emotions as hatred, fear, greed, and so on.
When I say that people want a clear conception of good, I mean that they desire to know what the right thing to do in their lives is. The "right thing to do" seems just as ambiguous as before, but it basically means that doing what is right is choosing and doing what is considered best according to one's own world-view. For example, it is right by most people's standards not to kill without any reason; to do so would then be considered wrong, bad, evil, or any of those things you wish to call it.
The good is not always related to duty, nor is good just what may be the most practical thing to do or that which offers the greatest reward. The good could be that which simply satisfies you the best among choices. When people do the right thing and know they're doing what they think is right, they feel good about themselves. Committing acts considered wrong for oneself often brings about feelings of guilt and insecurity. We can call this consideration of right and wrong, or good and bad, the study of morality or ethics.
The Bible has rich content about what is moral and immoral, and it is frequently consulted by Christians for guidance. The direct purpose of most clergy and their sermons seems to be how to address certain moral concerns through the use of the Bible and its interpretations. With such a large volume of material containing so much moral information in the form of parables, stories, or direct sermons and letters, the Bible is a lush source for moral guidance. But like I've said before, there is no bible for atheists that makes ethical decisions so clear. Therefore, how can atheism be defended on this count?
It is true that atheism does not have as direct a source of moral information as Christian theism does, but it is not true to say that atheism precludes no moral system at all. I discussed this in greater detail earlier in this book that an atheist must supplement their disbelief in God with a more complete moral code. I have found that although atheism does not easily or smoothly flow into such a dogmatic source as the Holy Bible, there is an exciting endeavor to educate oneself and find ideas from various philosophies to flesh out one's religion. The Bible is one such source certainly, and I for one am an atheist who finds many of the moral codes that are outlined in the Bible very wise and useful.
But I am also able to choose among the Bible's moral principles, and for those which I cannot accept, I supplant them with others from various other religious systems. There is a definite freedom here for the atheist, but to complete a moral system that represents oneself and doesn't contradict itself is not an easy task. I can see why Christianity may have the advantage of clarity and ease on its side for this moral consideration.
I still have my dislikes for theistic morality and some of the emotions behind its brand of ethics. For all of its wisdom, there are a lot of negative feelings lurking behind it, namely guilt. Again, this is something I bring up again and again, but that's because it is something that truly concerns me about theists and their moral systems. Is a moral system that uses a great deal of negative enforcement better or worse than one that uses positive enforcement?
I feel that morality can be clearer for the theist, but freer and more vibrant for the atheist. Having one of those positive traits will almost certainly be at the cost of losing the other. So which would you rather have?
There are five other qualities of a religious system that we emotionally desire that I would now like to talk about: simplicity, accuracy, control, hope, and beauty. They are every bit as monumental as what I have been discussing, and it is important that I at least briefly discuss them in relation to theism and atheism, however slightly and incompletely that discussion may be.
No religion is very simple, but still, a religious system that does not overcomplicate our lives is desirable. Perhaps I should elaborate that simplicity is not just having a belief which is simple in and of itself, but can be used and applied with greater ease. Complexity will be somewhat mandatory for any extensive world-view, but that belief which can be wielded with less difficulty will be more attractive.
I concede to theism, specifically Christianity, that it has allowed for a great deal of relative ease and simplicity for its followers. When you decide to become a Christian, the overwhelming amount of literature, churches to choose from, and overall sense of community is very encouraging. A neophyte to most Christian religions is usually welcomed with open arms and has many sources of guidance and instruction to choose from. This is a good example of what I mean by a belief system that accounts for the brand of simplicity that we as humans aim for.
Atheism is far more desolate than theism concerning ease and simplicity. Because it is only one belief and not a system of beliefs like theism, atheists do not usually turn to other atheists to form religious communities. There is some literature about atheism, such as what you're reading now, but it is harder to find and is generally slim compared to the quantity of Christian writings. Christianity and almost all forms of organized theism have longer written histories than atheism, so naturally that is why there are more books about it.
Emotionally, I feel atheism can be very difficult to fully come to grips with. It places the motivating factor of religion inside of oneself, and although one can always consult friends and religious books, the atheist often faces a more solitary struggle with their own religion. I do not want to have my assessment of atheism end at that, because I feel that the effort the atheist must invest, though at a higher cost in effort and time, inevitably leads to grander results than theism sometimes can. I am attempting to expose those results in this very text, but it will ultimately be up to you to decide if I succeed or not.
Accuracy, another quality I have named as desirable for a religion, seems to be a troublesome word. By accuracy I mean a belief or system of beliefs that is in alignment with the way we view the world and goes as little against our better judgement and intuition as possible. There is no concrete standard for reality by which to gauge accuracy in value-neutral terms, but there is still some personal, general sense of what it is within ourselves. This relates closely to what James meant by the "living" option which I have referred to many times. The more accurate a belief is for us, the more living an option it is. I want to point out that an idea is not simply living or dead; there are shades of life in between, and these varying degrees are very important to note.
For example, the belief that our senses relay information to our minds is an extremely living option. If it were not true, you could not be reading this book right now, for example. Another living option is that there is a continent in the South Pole named Antarctica. Most people don't disbelieve in Antarctica, and it's a very living option for almost all of us. But have we physically been to Antarctica? Have we see this continent with our own eyes to view proof of its existence? Most of us have not. That does not really affect our choice to believe that Antarctica exists, but it shows that there are varying degrees of living beliefs; the first belief that I mentioned, that senses relay information to the brain, is more living than the belief in Antarctica simply because there is a more direct and immediately provable experience making it more credible ("living") than the latter.
One's religion serves a great a deal of guiding roles with our volition, and many moral and spiritual choices must be made. Some of these choices are not completely in accordance with our immediate or intuitive sense of the world. For example, if one is extremely hungry and is offered a piece of bread, their immediate response would be to take it and eat it. But if someone told that person not to eat the bread because it was poisoned, the hungry person would probably have to suspend their immediate desire for food in place of a more rational one, which is to keep from getting poisoned. However tempting the food may be, the starving person knows the bread will harm them more than it will help them.
Our morality often serves a similar role in our lives. For example, I see an object in a store I would like to have; no one is watching me; but I will not steal it, however much I want it, because the moral principle behind the act would do me more spiritual harm than the good of owning that object. This notion not only extends to codes of behavior, but to the way we view the world as well. Scientists tell us that the Earth is spinning at thousands of miles per hour which goes completely against our direct intuition. The ground seems quite motionless to us, but we still know for a fact that it isn't true.
We have to bend our wills to accept these facts sometimes, and they can take some real persuasion. The more outrageous or unlikely a notion is, the more we demand some justification for it. Religion extends this view of the world even further, and it often stretches our ability to believe to the utmost limit. Such is sometimes the case with God. We are told in the Holy Bible of strange revelations, miracles we have never seen the likes of, people living for hundreds of years, and other peculiar acts of nature (such as the great flood). Most Christians don't seem to have much of a problem accepting what the Bible says, which can only mean that despite its sometimes unlikely accounts, it is still believable enough overall to be accepted as accurate, or at least tolerably accurate.
Most atheists would disagree. Atheists generally find that the Bible asks for too much faith on our parts, and the things it says are true are far too unlikely to actually be believable. Even when we sift through the smaller details and incidents in the Bible, the basic concept of an afterlife, angels, Satan, and God just don't seem to make much sense as real objects to most atheists. Clearly the atheist does not find God a living option at all.
I cannot settle this issue in any concrete manner because it is an entirely individual choice and preference. I can simply ask all of you to consider this: look at the world you know and the life you lead. Does the concept of world with a God or without a God seem more accurate with your intuitive understanding of things? Does there seem to be another afterlife after physical death from your impressions and experiences regarding death? Does the Bible sound accurate?
My most important concern is this: if what the Bible says is indeed too inaccurate for you, can you resolve this fact with your everyday life? I ask this because although accuracy is desirable, your own well-being is even more valuable. If an idea seems inaccurate, yet being without it would make your life meaningless or unlivable, then you need to wonder if you should and if you can live with that inaccuracy. That's a tough consideration, but please keep it in mind.
We tend to want to have some sort of control over our lives, and this also plays a role in our religion. A form of control discussed earlier was the freedom of will, and as James pointed out, a free will is more desirable than a bound one. Why? The bound will would be completely impotent of all choice; someone with a free will would at least be able to internally and rationally choose freely among options. Free will gives people control over their decision-making processes, and that reflects what I mean about control being a desirable trait to a religion.
God has given humankind free will by the standards of most Christian sects. There are relatively few popular believers in predestination in the present age, so I will leave that issue out of the discussion. But just how free and in control are Christians? There is a paradoxical freedom for the Christian and an ambiguous control. The paradox of their freedom is that they are indeed almost perfectly free to think and do as they please, such as by sinning or whatever else, but the punishment for straying from even one of the many important doctrines outlined in the Bible might be enough to prevent them from being saved when they die, and hence not enter heaven. They are certainly free, but their choices bear a heavy ideological cost.
The ambiguity lies over just how strongly God, the Devil, and our human nature work in human life. We hear that Satan tempts us to sin all the time; God is made to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, so what he wills is what will come about; and due to original sin, our human nature is to be naturally sinful creatures. If I were to be a Christian believing in these notions, it might seem as if I alone am writing this book out of my own volition and control, but who knows? Is Satan tempting me to promote Godlessness? Is God trying to teach me a lesson of some kind, perhaps testing me like he tested Job? Is my sinful human nature making me do this? There's just no way of knowing who or what is in control.
It is also ambiguous for the atheist, but far less so. Humans have little control over nature and most atheists do not believe in the power of prayer like theists do. Prayer is one activity of control that theists generally enjoy, one that is almost always a dead option for atheists who may consider it simply wishful thinking. But the way atheists tend to view the world and its forces is not as counter-intuitive as theism can often seem. Atheists generally believe that they have some amount of unimpeded control over their lives with no strange forces affecting it, like God or Satan. This is a very arguable fact, but atheism does promote a great deal of humanistic activity and participation too. Many conceptions of theism put humankind in such a weak, negative, and submissive life that it almost seems unenviable to be a human at all; we would rather go straight to the afterlife.
Of course, Christians and theists perform a great deal of humanistic activities too, and for that they should be commended. But what if there was less fear and submission motivating this work, and more personal drive to better humanity for its own sake? Would greater personal control over our lives make our humanist endeavors even greater? Again, consider your answer very carefully.
Hope is something that has been brought up many times, especially in our discussion about death. A good religious belief should make its believer hopeful for the future, and a poorer one will fail to. The emotion of hope is a strong and almost necessary one for us as humans to be satisfied and productive, so this is another pivotal point that must be raised in regards to God and Godlessness.
To recapitulate, theism has accounted for hope in its system quite well via the benevolence of God, the order in the universe, and the existence of an afterlife, among things. Followers of God seem to be able to resolve mental stress many times through the power of their belief. But although hope is well-accounted for on the surface of the issue, I have spent a little time trying to raise questions about whether Christianity is as hopeful as it seems. The power of the ideas of an all-powerful, all-good being and of an eternal and blissful afterlife are immensely appealing prima facie; so much so, that I worry that believers will not try to scrutinize their lives more because of the great attractiveness of this belief. But despite my criticisms, theism still resists scrutiny very well and it seems to provide its believers lots of hope.
An atheist does not have that metaphysical web of beliefs to believe in like a Christian does. There is almost always no recognition of a powerful entity looking after the universe nor of any afterlife for atheists. But this does not preclude despair. The atheist must initially struggle to come to grips with a more human- based world view, and in the effort to find hope, atheists tend to look for it in humankind. It is a more difficult struggle than many religious ones, as I have pointed out earlier, but it usually settles itself eventually.
My final curiosity at this stage in regards to hopefulness is the difference between the objects of hope for the theist and the atheist. When we have hope, it's usually not just hope in a general sense, but hope in something or for something. Theists brandish a hope that is both other-worldly and earthly; heaven and God are the other-worldly aspects, and the church community and humanistic deeds are the earthly ones. I worry that the Bible places too little credit on Earth and too much on heaven, but that fact nonetheless seems to clearly follow from the Bible (after all, what is the mundane compared to the divine?).
But there is a great need in the present earthly world for constant improvement of the human race, not just in technology or in wealth, but more importantly, in wisdom and understanding of the human condition. Whatever beliefs we may have, in God or not, we all generally work to make this life of ours better for ourselves and for society in general. So ask yourself: is the religious system that places hope in something other-worldly and earthly more productive and hopeful than the system that places it all on the Earth? Do we desire more hope in something during our lifetimes or after them?
And last, and perhaps the very least in its significance to content, is the beauty of a religious system. I do not mean that a religious system must make some account for aesthetics or anything so philosophical as that. I mean that there should be an appealing eloquence to a belief or system that makes its ideas admirably attractive and that leads to a desirable lifestyle. That may sound peculiar, but let me show you what I mean by illustrating how both theism and atheism each express this beauty that I speak of.
Almost all of the many sects of Christianity have a long tradition and history behind them. Between the inspiring stories in the Bible and the global pervasiveness of Christianity, there is a certain tradition of pride and honor behind its belief system. The majestic architecture of cathedrals, wonderful hymns and songs, and the great variety of other artistic manifestations all punctuate the beauty of the Christian life. And despite a marred history of war, struggle, and crime in the Middle Ages, Christianity still serves as an ideologically impressive doctrine in the present age. A Christian can look forward to a religion with great ritualistic appeal in the form of services, and the ideological sense of sharing an honorable lifestyle with those of millions of people. That is a beautiful religion indeed.
Atheism also has its own kind of beauty, though much different than that of the theist. Atheism has the appeal of a being part of a new and rising belief in the modern lifestyle. That might seem strange to say about a belief that is perhaps as old (maybe older) than theism, but let me explain. Atheism is making a resurgence of sorts, manifesting itself in new and more positive ways. While Christianity represents an older belief from antiquity, atheism represents something fresh and new.
The atheist almost always enjoys a greater ideological freedom that the theist. Though theists can be as free as anyone else, many limit themselves to biblical passages or to specific sources, such as the pope, religious leaders, or other clergy within their religion. But the intellectual world is open for the atheist to chart and explore, and there is an exciting philosophical endeavor awaiting the new atheist. There will be great struggling and there will almost certainly come unanswerable and unaccountable questions; but when the dust settles and the smoke clears, the Godless life is an extremely eloquent and fulfilling one. Humankind becomes the object of attention, service, and effort, and with that comes the realization that the betterment of humankind is a paramountly honorable and civil objective.
The atheist can expect less popular support on most occasions, and they can most probably expect to fare their philosophic journey alone. But overall, the grand style of liberation from theism, the new and modern rise of a maturing belief, and the epic philosophical struggle one faces as one comes to grips with one's own view and place in the world is a noble and beautiful life. I personally can vouch for atheism; my life has been far richer, energetic, and more important to me than it ever was for me as a Christian.
My personal opinion is of little consequence to you, however. You must decide which lifestyle I have described sounds more beautiful to you, and how much bearing that will have on your emotional sense of gratification for being either a theist or an atheist.
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Last updated: Thursday, 10-Mar-2011 15:54:32 CST