This is a question I'm sure most of you have heard before. Specially after the rise in popularity of Sam Harris and his book The Moral Landscape. However, I've never had the opportunity to discuss the idea with anyone. So I thought I'd do it here.
In a sense my title is misleading. Can atheists live moral lives? The obvious answer is yes. Even worms can live perfectly moral lives as well for all we know, and there is no reason why another human being cannot. Of course there are many interpretations for what is considered moral behavior, and in one instance an action can be immoral under one category, and acceptable under another.
Let's just assume we all know what we mean by good and bad when it comes to human behavior, so we don't get distracted by definitions. I also want to be clear that I'm not trying to make a claim in favor of Christianity in this post, there is no hidden punchline I wish to make. That's a topic for another post.
The real question I want to ask is this: Why should atheists live moral lives? By atheists, I'm more broadly encompassing the whole human race, if we are all living under the same principles. My reasoning behind this question is this. What is the reason for my life, and for doing anything and everything, in light of the knowledge that in a few years everything I am, and everyone I know, and anything I've done, and anyone I've affected, will be dead? I'm a university student, and as a result I'm very busy. During a typical semester, I have to take seriously my every action if I wish to be successful and not waste time. When you are busy, you need a good reason for doing anything that isn't essential, if not it's pointless.
In the words of Tolstoy: "Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?"
What good then does morality do? What difference does it make if I choose to derail the approaching train to save the five lives chained to the track, or simply watch the event unfold, if either way in a few years all of them including myself will be dead?
Alan Turing is credited with deciphering the Enigma. Which allowed the allies to obtain German military intelligence, and tactics. Early on he faced a dilemma. He knew there was going to be an attack upon a naval ship, with innocent lives he could easily save by notifying the military. However in so doing, he would inevitably compromise the code, and potentially lose the war, and thousands more would die. So he allowed the death of one ship, to save lives of countless others.
We can all agree that he made the right decision, and this type of morality is usually termed utilitarianism. But did it make a difference? All those lives he saved by his decision, are now dead or dying as the last few WWII survivors pass away. Even if you claim the world we live in exists thanks to him, and the Allies winning the war, does it make a difference? We too will be dead as a result, and those that come after us. Life is an etch a sketch, and regardless of your drawing being good or bad, at the end of the day, one shake of your world and and the memory of it will be forgotten.
I heard a man put it this way. When the Titanic is going down, it does not matter if you go down hugging or mugging.
When a plane you are on is falling out of the sky, and the man next to you pulls out a gun and asks for your money, or the man behind you begins stabbing other passengers, or the lady in front begins teaching CPR, or the flight attendant decides to give a free meal to a homeless passenger that was on the flight, none of it matters. Not only does it not matter, but all of it seems irrational in light of the impending doom.
So what do you guys think? Why should atheists live moral lives?
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