Confused Atheists?

Nothing is more frustrating than meeting up with some “new” atheists somewhere for a coffee and a chat, only to find out that they have abandoned “god” but not the religion that went with it. I wrote an earlier blog that touched on this.

Giving up a religion is actually quite a profound experience. It changes your entire perspective on the universe, its causes, justifications and consequences. Most people’s morality is, or they believe it to be, grounded in their religion. Your opinions on so many non-religious elements of social human existence have been formed or influenced from expressions of religious doctrine. This is natural, because as children and to a lesser extent as adults we are the products of our social and cultural environment. Many intelligent people can’t conceive of thinking in any other way than with the perspective of their own social and cultural “tribe” nor do they see any need to do so.

Having gone through many such conversations with people, mostly in person and a few online, it seems to me that the problem is that people have abandoned the ship of religion, but quite often they are now just treading water, from a philosophical perspective. They are vulnerable to the passing sharks of “New Age Religion,” the siren calls of “Humanism” (which I tend to think of as the homeopathy of philosophies), or the jelly fish stings of religion itself. Many of my friends in the 70s and 80s who abandoned their faith ended up going back to a softer version of it (often supposedly just for the “social” or family aspects), or to another one altogether. I sincerely hope that the new atheists of today can avoid this.

The hardest thing for people to accept, once they have rejected their religion, is that all the baggage that went with a belief in a “god” has to get chucked out as well.  All those prescriptions on morality, justice, and cultural conduct that have been taken for granted and deeply instilled in most people need to be torn out by the roots. Some of it may be replanted in your psyche, albeit with new justification. Try starting with “I believe that murder is wrong because”….why? And if murder is wrong, what about capital punishment, wars, self-defense, mercy killing and suicides? In the past, it was easy to say “because god said it was wrong.” That explanation no longer suffices. You need to provide yourself with a new reason for certain beliefs that you hold, or perhaps abandon or modify those convictions.

As I noted, personally I think that the best way to deal with this is to try to start from an existentialist base, and work your way into some more comfortable philosophical position from there. But many people have a real problem with morality being subjective, usually because they are familiar with the religious examples of straw-man extremism (“if you’re an atheist, its ok to be a pedophile” sort of thing). They have been born into an indoctrination program designed to instill social, cultural and religious codes of conduct. For some people, honor killing is essential and meritorious, for others it’s anathema to basic human rights. Neither side is right or wrong; it’s totally a subjective issue. People who condemn honor killings often fail to note that most countries have lower murder standards for “crimes of passion” such as killing the person who just killed or molested your child. The only difference is the time involved between the revenge killing and the affront to the avenging murderer. Some honor killing also involved “justifications” that are anathema to other cultures like holding hands, talking to someone of the other sex, etc., issues that objectively involve no physical harm to any party.  But for an atheist, there is no more objective “evil” – there is only popular or unpopular opinion, and this social morality has clearly evolved (albeit usually quite slowly) over time and with widely disparate results within different communities of humans.

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The vast majority of people find the concept of subjective morality very troubling and refuse to acknowledge it. They dearly want their own prejudices to be the “right” and “correct” ones. How many times have I discussed this with an ex- Muslim, who feels revulsion at women who “parade themselves” in revealing clothes, which is “wrong.” Or ex-Christians (usually Americans) who have linked their religion to their views on economics, and consider “socialist” policies to be “corrupting.” Ex-Jews who go to extreme lengths to try to claim that Jewishness is an ethnicity, despite all the evidence (and common sense) to the contrary. Ex-Hindus who claim that the caste system is horrid, but which would not continence their daughter marrying someone deemed to be “beneath” her. And the atheist Chinese, who insists that their new office be designed according to feng shui principles. Many social traditions grounded in religion (like monarchy) are given new justifications (“it’s tradition” – give me a break, it was also a tradition to burn witches and was just about as beneficial to society as having one family living off the public purse despite their lack of meaningful qualifications other than heredity).

You can, indeed, give up being a fundamental Christian/Muslim/Hindu etc., and that doesn’t mean you need to embrace evolution, abortion on demand, homosexuality, abolition of the death penalty, geology, pig barbeques, mini-skirts, transsexuality, driving on the other side of the road, steak tartar, and putting milk in your cup before the tea. But when you do give up a religious view of the world, you have to expand that critical thinking to all your moral assumptions to ensure that they are worthy of maintenance in your new capacity as an atheist. You can continue to hold that a mysterious force directed the emergence of life on earth, such as space aliens, just be sure that you understand why you believe this to be the case and be prepared to defend that position and justify it. Likewise, you can continue to oppose abortion, just have a reason besides “god hates baby killers.” And if you continue to support capital punishment, just don’t fall back on the Hebrew Bible’s “an eye for an eye” argument – although the concept of lex talionis existed in many early societies, and was nothing new by the rather late time that the Hebrews got around to writing it down as one of their guiding legal precepts.

If you think of the human mind as clay, then religion is an image impressed upon the clay. When you remove the religion, the impression remains within the clay, unless you actively reconstruct it. The removal of “religion” leaves an empty space of opinions, and its pernicious effects linger on, inviting other justifications to fill the same cavity.

The Greek philosopher Socrates is alleged to have said that “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  There is also quite a bit in Buddhism that challenges people to view their fears, convictions and beliefs as illusions. The goal is to be able to control your own thoughts (often but not exclusively through meditation) to the point where you can clear your mind and be as a pure reflection of the world, and then remove the reflection itself. You don’t need to go that far, but if you have been brave enough to give up gods and the hope of post-life rewards and the fear of after-death punishments, then you should be brave enough to ask “why do I believe this?”

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