Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


My Dialogue with Atheists Continues

posted by David Klinghoffer

Earlier this month I challenged believers in atheism to tell me how or if they find there to be meaning in life. Also, without a transcendent reality outside our own physical world that gives an objective definition to moral ideas, how can an atheist affirm the existence of any moral absolutes? Is anything truly “right” or “wrong” independent of any subjective feelings we may have about it?

My challenge provoked a considerable number of responses — 145, at last count. Only a few commenters misunderstood what I was saying. I did not mean that people without a God live lives without morality. On the whole, I was moved by the time and thought so many readers (many of whom came here from the atheist forum on Reddit.com) gave to formulating a reply. I recommend that you at least skim through the comments yourself.
The thing that struck me most about the responses was their variousness. 

The top response? Probably it was people saying their moral ideas come from evolution by way of physiology: “It begins in the brain.” “It occurs from within the mind.” It “may well be hard wired.” “It’s simple, it’s a trait of evolution.” “Morals are evolved.” Meaning, too, “Evolved throughout the ages, duh.” But why I should obey evolutionary morals, what authority they could have to command me if I can get away with disregarding them, isn’t clear to this blogger. Nor do I see how a purely material reality, as Darwinian evolution assumes, could be other than meaningless. 

Among these evolutionary thinkers, Moral Atheist offered the startling view that “Morality is inherent in the species….Humankind is inherently moral.” On what planet?


Many others based their moral ideas on empathy, or “an urge” to make other people happy. That’s lovely if you are such a naturally empathetic person. What if you’re not? What if you have to make hard a decision where your feelings for others are in conflict with your own self-love or self-regard? What if today I just don’t feel like being nice?

Some seemed to agree with me that there can be no ultimate meaning in their universe. “Meaning” comes from having a good time. Of course, that’s no “meaning” at all. 

Some candidly admitted, “There is no Meaning.” “For me there’s no meaning in life. Life means nothing.” “I am quite happy with the idea that I have no meaning or reason for being.” I would be curious to know how such a horrendous notion actually plays out in the lives of the people who answered this way. What impact does it have on their behavior or emotions? If none, I doubt they really believe it, or that they have plumbed the significance of what they’ve said.

Some said meaning and morals come  ”from my parents,” “from our culture and parents,” “learned from my family.” But this is simply ancestor-worship. Who says your parents are right?
Some gave idiosyncratic answers. Scott admitted to being “a little drunk” as he was surfing the Internet late at night, but allowed that he derives meaning from “hate.” He hates injustice, hates superstition, hates cancer (he works in the health-care field).
Some were content with nakedly arbitrary responses like, “I assign [meaning] for myself.” Some derived answers to such ultimate questions about the cosmos from “personal experience.” ”Meaning [in] life comes from whatever we make it to be.”
Some ridiculed my question as “ignorant” and “profoundly unimaginative” and gave me tips for recommended reading (Saussure, Plato).
The variousness of the responses, and their uniform inadequacy, is the answer to my question. These well-meaning and I’m sure good-hearted folks are grasping, groping quite blindly for answers that every human needs and knows he needs. Arbitrarily assigned meaning (“I find the meaning of life to lie in collecting souvenir spoons”) is no real meaning at all. Arbitrarily assigned moral values, or values inherited by chance from your mom and dad, are not morals in any serious, adult sense.
I would assume that all the people who replied to me live not by the light of the answers they offered, but by that of the moral culture that still persists even in the secular West, a moral culture derived ultimately from an awareness of God, however diffused and hard to recognize.
Meanwhile, at First Things, David Goldman (a/k/a Spengler) notes British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s typically incisive formulation of exactly the point I wanted to bring to the attention of atheist readers: 

The universe cannot provide its own meaning, just as a logical system cannot prove its own premises (according to the Gödel incompleteness theorem). This meaning of the universe that lies outside the universe we call God…. Morality is not written in nature: you can’t read ethics off the world.

I couldn’t, and didn’t, say it any better than that.


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Glen Davidson

posted May 21, 2009 at 7:29 pm


But why I should obey evolutionary morals, what authority they could have to command me if I can get away with disregarding them, isn’t clear to this blogger.

Hobbes gave a simple answer to it, which is good enough for a short reply. We agree to a social contract in order to avoid the war of all against all. Refined by Locke and others, this idea had a good deal to do with the development of the American Constitution and political thought.
But David, you’ve shifted away from what you asked, which was where we got our values. Now you’re saying we’re wrong because we didn’t give you universally mandatory values, which most of us do not claim. How could we, given the fact that humans don’t act as if they have a universal moral code? There are some moral traits that exist across the board, such as not killing members of the group without reason, however the specifics are few, and the general similarities appear to be more or less essential for there even to be a social group.

The universe cannot provide its own meaning, just as a logical system cannot prove its own premises (according to the Gödel incompleteness theorem).

And? We don’t claims such a fiction as the “universe’s meaning.” Any chance you’ll ever listen to us?

This meaning of the universe that lies outside the universe we call God….

Probably as good as any name for it, were you capable of demonstrating that “meaning of the universe that lies outside the universe” refers to anything at all.

Morality is not written in nature: you can’t read ethics off the world.

It seems to follow evolutionary pressures, so to the extent that you can speak of morality being “in anything,” you might call that “thing” nature.
Actually, the reason you’re preaching and not having any kind of dialog is that you’re not asking for where we get our values, you’re insisting that we tell you how we get transcendent values. As most of us pointed out, we simply do not receive values that are transcendent, and we have the evidence to back up our claims.
Glen Davidson
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Patsy

posted May 21, 2009 at 7:35 pm


Whatever ur religion, you can get meaning out of life by being kind and helping others and relaxing and having fun too! don’t need church or religion for that.



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Your Name

posted May 21, 2009 at 7:46 pm


“The variousness of the responses, and their uniform inadequacy, is the answer to my question. ”
1. That you think yourself “qualified,” “able,” “worthy”, “adequate,” to judge how others find meaning in their lives says a lot about your shortcomings.
The fact is that many atheist live happy lives FULL of meaning….your inability to understand them is…..well meaningless. I would fully suspect that someone stuck in their own point of view would struggle to grasp how others experience the world.
I don’t suspect I will come back to your blog very often. While I enjoy reading the views of theists your lack of insight into that which does not directly correspond to your own world view is discouraging. You’ve a long way to go…. I encourage you to keep walking. Ask yourself why you think you can, from your seat at the computer, judge the meaning in anothers life? You are so far from walking in the shoes of another, you see Atheists happy and content in this world, excited for each new day but you don’t make an “adequate” attempt to understand. I know this only because I have dozens of theist friends who do. They may not agree with my experience or share in it, by we have mutual understandings on how our respective view points on life can be fufilling. I have little sympathy for you only because my friends are not special, we are all pretty average. This leads me to believe that it is not so much their special ability but rather your lack of effort that allows them to reach a place that is so elusive to you.
Again I ask, what makes you capable of judging what is “adequate” meaning in a persons life? When you’ve come to an “adequate” answer to this perhaps your insights will be a little more interesting



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Turmarion

posted May 21, 2009 at 9:15 pm


Glen Davidson: As most of us pointed out, we simply do not receive values that are transcendent
Fair enough.
and we have the evidence to back up our claims.
This, however, is incorrect. The transcendent (which need not necessarily be God, a god, or even theistic–think of the dharmakaya in Buddhism, e.g.) can neither be proved nor disproved in the ordinary sense of “proving”, by definition. After all, if the “transcendent” indeed transcends the cosmos, no means within the cosmos can prove or disprove it, right? Simple logic.
Now, those (theists and otherwise) who believe in a transcendent may believe based upon mystic experience; the problem with this is that, obviously, it’s not repeatable in a scientific way. Just because I experience God, the Ein Soph, shunyata, or whatever doesn’t mean I can reliably lead you to do so. The way of the mystics is more or less all or none. It is interesting, BTW, that even as hard-shell an atheist as Sam Harris is unwilling to rule out life after death or a certain “transcendent” realm (though he strenuously avoids using that term) on the basis of his long-term meditative practice.
What non-mystics claim is not that the transcendent can be proved per se, but that there is room in the cosmos for rational belief. Those who reject the transcendent disagree with this, of course–but I think there are cogent arguments for the existence of the transcendent. Once again, I’d recommend How to Think About God by Mortimer Adler, or some of the books by Alvin Plantinga, for those willing to wade through some deep philosophical waters.
I don’t doubt that those who reject the transcendent, or a transcendent meaning to life, the universe, and everything are in the main as moral as anyone else. They go to work, pay their taxes, love their families, and try to make the world a better place. The issue, I think, for those who say that there is a problem with a lack of transcendent meaning or moral order is not individual but societal. If there is no transcendent, then on what basis do we approve our system and reject Nazism or Communism? The most you could say is that they “go against human nature”, but a Nazi would say that it is human nature for the strong (i.e. the Aryans) to rule and to kill the weak as needed.
To put it in Hobbsean terms, we have a social contract, yes–but he didn’t think the social contract should be a liberal democracy. Hobbes favored a rather despotic state that would keep humanity’s nastiness in check so that it would be less “nasty, brutish, and short”. There have been plenty of brutish and repressive social contracts that have lasted a long time. Our present-day ideals of democracy, equality, and human rights are a very brief blip (so far) in human history, and (as we can see by looking at the world) precarious and not shared by everyone.
In short, without a transcendent ethic, there’s no ultimate reason to choose between us and China, or us and Al Quaeda, since any claim about goodness, appropriateness, naturalness, etc. will be matched by equal claims from the opposition on their system. The only thing we could really say is “We’re the good guys because we say so and because we have the muscle (so far) to back it up. Now if one’s OK with that, fine–but some of us aren’t.
It’s interesting that Thelemite and I actually agreed on this on the original thread, despite being one hundred eighty degrees apart in all other ways. He pretty much said that morality is whatever tends to work to make humans happy, but that it didn’t preclude large amounts of nastiness.
Anyway, I’m not “preaching” or denigrating anyone’s viewpoint here. Nor am I, in the words of Your Name at 7:46, trying to tell anyone what is “adequate” to give them meaning. Just trying to show why, from a theistic perspective, an ethic unsupported by the transcendent doesn’t seem to work–just as you and others have been trying to explain why for you it does. We’ll all find out one way or the other in the end.



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Scott M.

posted May 21, 2009 at 10:13 pm


Dear Mr. Klinghoffer, I’m sorry we weren’t able to answer your question about meaning to your satisfaction but it would be wrong to say we’re grasping at straws, etc. as you said in one of your final paragraphs. Maybe what you meant by “meaning” should be better defined. Maybe it’s one of those questions that doesn’t really have an answer like when my son asked, “why was I born last?” The way he posed the question presupposes we intended for him in particular to be born in the family hierarchy where he was.
Maybe it would have been better to ask “what makes your lives worth living?” or what brings us happiness? These are questions that can be answered without referring to some god and are questions we can answer. But if your required answer insists that some form of supernatural be responsible, well….you can see our dilemma.
If I were to ask you what gives your life meaning without a belief in the supernatural power of Zeus; how would you respond?
First off, the question implies one has to believe in Zeus to have meaning in one’s life and all answers that don’t contain Zeus in the response will be discarded.
Second, it’s just confusing. Do we derive meaning from a belief in Zeus? What sort of meaning does Zeus bring to our lives.
I think you can see what I mean.
Best wishes with your search.



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itsumoai

posted May 21, 2009 at 10:25 pm


I believe the meaning of life is best described by the definition of economics; attempt to live the best life one can from the limited resources that you have been given to pursue one’s limitless dreams/wants. For example, lets say I am pretty good at languages and politics, but not so good at math( no wall street for me!). With my limited resources, I chose to go into the field of human rights law. The reason I chose the field because this field gives me an endless amount of joy to know that I am aiding in creating a better world for the generations after me with my limited resources. If what I am doing is wrong, the invisible hand (whatever you want to call it), will rebuke and cause me to choose another path. I, like many others, will keep trying to do something until I am happy and the invisible hand is happy. If I keep messing up, there will be consequences and the consequences will force me to stop doing what I am currently doing. That is the meaning of life from my point of view.



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Johann

posted May 21, 2009 at 10:27 pm


For all that you’ve been “moved”, David, you’re still quite condescending to those you’re addressing here. Rein that pride in a little and actually listen if you want to understand.
From your dissatisfaction with the “variousness of the responses”, it sounds like you’re looking for Atheist Scripture instead of the individual perspectives you asked for. If that’s the case, a word of advice – give up right now. You will not find anything of the sort. Frankly, that contention itself is silly in the extreme; do you think that if you asked Christians where they get their life’s meaning from, all of them would say “God” or “The Bible” in reponse?
You take it as a given that there’s a “meaning” to the universe. Why? I mean, yes, the Biblical creation story says that the uncountable trillions of stars in the Universe were put there as window dressing to what was happening on Earth – but apart from being absurd, this account requires a hubris of truly astronomical proportions. I don’t assign meaning to the existence of the Universe just as I don’t assign meaning to the particular arrangement of the individual particles of sand in my back yard. They are what they are and as they are. I find both subjects fascinating and want to know more about them and understand them better, but that doesn’t mean that they have some sort of inherent meaning.
For that matter, there is no such thing as an “inherent meaning” in the first place. It is a mental construct that we associate with things in our lives, and the shape it takes is based on our experiences – what you think and what I think when we hear the word “tree” will be different because our experiences with trees have been different. Does that mean that the meaning you assign to “tree” is right and mine is wrong, or vice versa? Not at all, because there is no such thing as the real meaning of “tree”. At best, you could argue for a composite definition based on the sum of our experiences, but all this would reflect is the conventional meaning rather than some kind of essence of treeness.
I can go on about your points for a while but right now, I don’t really see the use. The problem is not with the responses you got, David. It’s with your question and with the attitude behind it.
From this followup article, it seems that your primary goal was not to understand the worldview of the atheists replying to you but to “challenge” them, as you put it, and to declare yourself victorious. If you wanted a real discussion here, the variety of the responses wouldn’t seem so onerous to you – “meaning of life” is a pretty damn ambiguous term and the replies you got approached it from a lot of different angles, from happiness and satisfaction to the foundation and standards of morality to epistemological examination. This is a *good* thing – when you don’t just settle for a cursory misunderstanding and lump it all together as a sort of confused nihilism the way you did. I understand that you’re unfamiliar with our perspective, and that’s okay – if we knew everything, there would be no need to learn. But if you actually want to learn instead of tilting at imaginary windmills, you need to define your terms better and try much harder to leave your preconceptions and your condescension at the door. It won’t be much of a discussion otherwise.



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No More Mr. Nice Guy!

posted May 22, 2009 at 12:27 am


What you fail to understand is that all morality is necessarily relative, and religion-based morality is the most relative of all. You claim your particular version of morality is absolute, but it is nothing of the sort. It is relative to which god you believe in, which religion worshiping that god that you belong to, which set of sacred scrolls you accept as revealing the commands of that god, which interpretation of those scrolls you adhere too, and so on…
Also I find your statement that a purely material universe is necessarily meaningless, appallingly shallow and facile. Is a Bach fugue or a Chopin minuet meaningless because it doesn’t last forever?



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The5ThApe (twitter)

posted May 22, 2009 at 6:34 am


I pity anyone who, in a given situation, would do the moraly right thing only because they belong to a religion of fear and are scared that the eye in the sky is watching.
Religion makes it possible to do imoral things in the name of God without the feeling of guilt. Maybe that’s why The Bush (george W) said that God told him to invade Iraq.
Morality does not come from the bible. Things like “Treat people like you would like to be treated” and similar sayings have been around long before chritianity, and that type of benificial behaviour can be seen in primates and other mamals without the need of a bible.
smell the coffee.



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Jonathan Ellis

posted May 22, 2009 at 7:30 am


Morals and Religion aren’t really very happy bedfellows Mr Klinghoffer. Until those acting in the name of religion can obey one simple commandment, though shall not kill, then I have very, very little time for the rest of it.
You are right, as a system of government and of social pressure to obey laws, religion is a good weapon of control. It was used to scare and pressurise people into submission and controlled behaviour, that much is obvious from the various ad hoc rules from around the globe. If eating pork in a hot country with poor cooking skills and hygiene is ill advised as it may kill you, then make a religious reason up as to why it would be bad, and people will stop eating it. Don’t eat with the same hand you wipe your arse with is another similar example. Simple rules, but enforced with religion, as there was nothing else at the time.
Now of course, we have a great standard of living (in the West). The fear the governement rule us with is of a different nature. Prison, lose your house, lose your family, lose your fine wines and fine food.
I don’t commit crime against the material object because it would land me in trouble and I may lose the things in life I enjoy. I don’t commit crime against the person because I am human, I love my fellow man and I have moved beyond killing to get my religious point across.
The mistake you make, Mr Klinghoffer, is right at the start of your writing above. Atheism isn’t a belief system. It isn’t a faith. It’s not something you have to constantly remind yourself of, ritualise or read about everyday. It isn’t something you need to shout about from the rooftops, gather in groups to sing about, or indoctrinate and convert people to. It simply is sensible, logical, human brains working it out for themselves.
Read the fantasy, enjoy it even, but then close the book and live in the real world. That sir, is my meaning in life. The utterly beautiful, incredible, fantastic progression from single cell organism to human being. Every step along the way has been successful, every single step! From amoeba to me! Every evolutionary stage has survived and reproduced and here I am. That is simply mind numbing! I don’t need anything else.



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Jonathan Ellis

posted May 22, 2009 at 7:36 am


Oh, and try this for religion and morals ! Then please do create another condescending blog post trying to explain it to us non-believers :)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8058709.stm



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Brian Beckman

posted May 22, 2009 at 10:50 am


A big ditto to Turmarion. I would have written almost the same thing.
In fact, even if I didn’t “feel” a faith in a lawgiver-God, I would legally agree to such a faith if everyone in society (particularly the elites!) did, too, since it would give me some protection from their will to rule me.
Belief in a God that rules us all removes the rationalizations of the arrogant to rule others.



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Brent Rasmussen

posted May 22, 2009 at 11:11 am


> But why I should obey evolutionary morals, what
> authority they could have to command me if I can
> get away with disregarding them, isn’t clear to
> this blogger.
Oh, please. This isn’t that hard to understand.
We are moral because it *works*. We (a collective “we” meaning our entire species) have worked out these basic rules (“don’t kill people”, “protect children”, “don’t rape anyone”, etc.,) over hundreds of thousands of years of living together in societies.
We “obey” them not because they are a commandment from an supernatural magical man in the sky, but because they *work*. This loose collection of rules allows us to live with each other and ourselves – and to survive as a species.



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DavidF

posted May 22, 2009 at 12:14 pm


DK is struck by the number and variety of responses–I am struck by the anger and aggressiveness. Regrading the person who commented that DK should simply go away and David calmly replied that such a response is “ironic”–(given the fact the blog is on Beliefnet–a site for those who believe in the Almighty) this is ample demonstration of the fury and arrogance of the atheist community. The religious community has long-ago held a standard of live and let live and has not sought to punish atheists for perhaps a 100 years–it is evident that the now ascendant (a community on the upswing but still a minority)atheists will *never* allow for a live and let live standard if they assume (God willing this will not ever happen in America)the reigns of power. Atheism has prospered under countries dominated by religious faith and it seems to me they would do well to not disturb the status quo. Accusations of danger with morality and meaning will soon affect believer and atheist alike if and when the power and influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition disappears from our culture.
No doubt that the election of Obama will further atheist goals and we need to wait to see if our community has enough strength to stand up for ourselves and our values after we pick up the pieces of the damage caused by our new ruling elite.



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Yirmi

posted May 22, 2009 at 12:26 pm


I used to be an atheist, so I think I can speak to what gives atheists meaning in life. First, atheists find meaning by passionately believing in their chosen cause: atheism. They believe they’re right, and that everyone else is dumb, and this is a nice feeling, and gives them something to live for. Second, they often have an evangelical fervor to spread their beliefs, which explains their presence on sites like this one, and their obsession with creating or editing wikipedia entries on things they dislike, to promote their views. Third, they often have quasi-messianic views about what the world would be like if everyone were atheists. Fourth, they find ways to experience some of the positive emotions associated with religion, like wonder/awe, humility, positive thinking, etc. Atheism thus can function a lot like religion (as can liberalism, or conservatism or objectivism for that matter), except without the supernatural beliefs. In that way it’s not that different than from some liberal religions, whose members and clergy often don’t believe in the actual truth of the religion’s traditional beliefs.



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Turmarion

posted May 22, 2009 at 12:41 pm


Brian Rasumssen: We are moral because it *works*.
The Roman Empire “worked” for over a millennium. Women didn’t have many rights, the economy was based on slavery, there was no political freedom, and punishment for crimes was draconian, but the system lasted over a thousand years. China works right now, with no political freedoms and a mix of the worst of socialism (repressive state, no freedoms) and capitalism (worst environmental crisis on earth, few constraints on copyright violation), to say nothing of a draconian legal system. Had Nazi Germany won, it probably would have been a thousand-year Reich–whatever else they were, they were efficient. There would have been genocide, but for those remaining alive (who didn’t seem too concerned about what was going on in those camps), it would have “worked” fine.
This is what I pointed out above. Your average Roman, Chinese, or Nazi German was probably as “decent”, as “moral” as your average American–any of which would go to work, pay their taxes, love their family, do right by their friends, etc. If they thought about the slave being beaten, or the people shot at Tiananmen Square, or the Jewish family next door that got deported to Auschwitz, or the Asian sweatshops making the shoes they buy (and the thought probably wouldn’t occur to begin with), they’d shrug, think, “Too bad, but that’s how the world works,” and go about their business.
The point: while the same basic morality seems to “work” individually (otherwise life would be impossible), on a societal level there are all kinds of systems that “work” just fine which are abominable. Only if one assumes some transcendent standard is there any means by which to judge Nazis “bad” and our system “good”, even in a relative sense. Otherwise, as Nietzsche pointed out long ago, it boils down to whoever has the power to enforce their system.
Really, whenever we talk about providing alternatives to radical Islam or trying to get China to “liberalize”, we are applying a transcendent standard whether we admit it or not. We’re saying that our system (democracy, pluralism, rights and freedoms, etc.) is better than Islamism or Communism, or whatever. However, if it comes down only to what works, and there is no inherent meaning in the cosmos, such a statement makes no logical sense. Who are we to say our system is “better” than Chinese communism or Islamism or fascism or anything else? Other systems, as pointed out, certainly work, and other cultures don’t necessarily accept our values (such as women’s rights, democracy, etc.). All statements of the superiority of our system can really mean, logically, is “we don’t like your system so we’re going to make you change if we can force you to do so”. Anything beyond that assumes a higher standard against which to judge systems of governance, a standard which according to those who reject the transcendent, does not exist.
Once again, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion–I’m just pointing out the inconsistencies in some of these views. Many believers have inconsistencies, too, BTW–I would never say otherwise. Most of us aren’t consistent, period, and it would be great if believers and non-believers could both think more clearly.



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Daniel Ackerman

posted May 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm


If morality in humans requires God, then how do you account for morality in societies that do not accept or believe in God? Japan, for instance, is a Buddhist/Shinto but largely secular nation, with no concept of one deity. Their morality seems to be running fine.
And if only humans have souls and can know God, how do you account for apparently moral behavior among chimps and other primates? God may help some people be moral under certain conditions, but does not seem to be an essential ingredient for morality.



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Turmarion

posted May 22, 2009 at 2:36 pm


Daniel Ackerman: If morality in humans requires God, then how do you account for morality in societies that do not accept or believe in God?
Actually, even non-theistic religions often have a strong concept of transcendent ethics–karma, in Buddhism, for example, is seen as an absolute law with no exceptions, which rewards and punishes people impersonally on the basis of their deeds. People who think that only monotheistic religions (or theistic religions) have stern ethical codes haven’t really studied polytheistic or non-theistic religions.
Societies that are highly secular and highly orderly (e.g. Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands) have highly collectivist cultures in which people are socialized into doing more for the common good and valuing individualism much less than a in a society such as ours. Other secularized societies with cultures that are less collectivist-order oriented (e.g. some of the former Eastern Bloc states) aren’t doing so well and are to some extent chaotic. It is probably in response to this that a rather fundamentalist form of Orthodoxy and various rabid nationalist parties are making a comeback in post-Soviet Russia.
Once again, in my view the issue isn’t whether individual non-believers can be moral (they obviously can and are) or whether a secularized society can be ethical and democratic (also, obviously, the can and are), but on what basis, absent an overarching or transcendent ethic, one promotes one system (e.g. ours) over another (e.g. China). What argument can one logically use except preference?



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Brent Rasmussen

posted May 22, 2009 at 2:48 pm


> But why I should obey evolutionary morals, what
> authority they could have to command me if I can
> get away with disregarding them, isn’t clear to
> this blogger.
Oh, please. This isn’t that hard to understand.
We are moral because it *works*. We (a collective “we” meaning our entire species) have worked out these basic rules (“don’t kill people”, “protect children”, “don’t rape anyone”, etc.,) over hundreds of thousands of years of living together in societies.
We “obey” them not because they are a commandment from an supernatural magical man in the sky, but because they *work*. This loose collection of rules allows us to live with each other and ourselves – and to survive as a species.



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Brent Rasmussen

posted May 22, 2009 at 2:52 pm


(David, sorry about the repost above – my browser cache screwed me!)
@Turmarion
The only measure of the success or failure of our morality systems is the fact that our species survives. We’re here, and we cover the planet. THAT is why it works – whatever it happens to be this millennium.
Attributing qualifiers to it like “better”, “worse”, “our system”, “their system”, etc. is an error of scale. You’re looking at it too narrowly. Morality – ever-changing, arbitrary human morality that is *different* in it’s specifics from society to society – still has many of the same basic features. The details change, but the core basics have allowed our species to survive for hundreds of thousands of years.
You see, none of our society’s recent modifications of the specific details to that thing we call “morality” really matters at all. By our current society’s lights, yes, ignoring the plight of the Roman slave is wrong. But – hard as it is to say – it doesn’t really matter in the long run. The ONLY thing that matters is our survival as a species.
Now, we pretty it up because we’re human. We like to tell stories. We like to believe that we understand why we do things. But on a meta scale, the underlying truth is that we make these moral choices in order to survive. The evidence is that we are still here, and we are surviving.
This does not mean that we won’t be wiped out at any point in the future though. There’s that problem of scale again. Hundreds of thousands of years is a literal eye-blink on the unthinkably mammoth timeline of our planet’s history. Many, many species have come and gone over the billions of years. Our intelligence and self-awareness seem to be evolutionary assets to our survival now – but will they still be in a million years? A billion? Maybe the best-suited form of life on our planet is the unthinking bacteria. Or a cockroach. Who knows? We certainly don’t. All we can do is keep survivin’, day by day, year by year.
And the way we do that is to agree on a few things. Don’t kill each other. Don’t rape each other. Obey our society’s laws. Protect children. Protect each other.
Sure, there are local and specific variations and exceptions to these rules, but on the main, most society’s agree with them – or they fade away.
Being a member of our current society I find it difficult to step away and look at it objectively, like we all do I suppose. But I force myself to because it’s the only way to get to that “aha” moment where you begin to understand why we do the things we do.
Does this make our lives any less important, any less meaningful? To understand that is *is* all just arbitrary? That there is no “transcendent standard”, but instead just us humans, getting along as best we can?
I don’t think so. We create meaning and worth for ourselves all the time. This is also a part of being human.
I’m glad to be human – a part of this grand, unplanned adventure that our species embarked on in the depths of time when we first looked around us at our world…
…and woke up.



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vfilipch

posted May 22, 2009 at 3:25 pm


RE: I couldn’t, and didn’t, say it any better than that.
Dear David!
I strongly suspect that the main reason you “couldn’t, and didn’t, say it any better than that” is because you have never bothered to spend any time to investigate topic of “biological roots of morality”.
Google it. It is free.



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Your Name

posted May 22, 2009 at 3:26 pm


RE: I couldn’t, and didn’t, say it any better than that.
Dear David!
I strongly suspect that the main reason you “couldn’t, and didn’t, say it any better than that” is because you have never bothered to spend any time to investigate topic of “biological roots of morality”.
Google it. It is free.



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DavidF

posted May 22, 2009 at 3:29 pm


Turmarion–thanks for all your discussion here– it is all very good.
Brent, you might be a true believer but that remains to be seen. Terms must be understood and when we speak of meaning, we are saying special significance, purposefulness, goals, etc. The “meaning” you say we create for ourselves all the time is not the kind of meaning we are indicating.
On a cosmological level–is there randomness or is there purpose? Does all appear to be a game of chance or does it appear to be designed? Are there coincidences or are there way too many coincidences to consider?
What Rabbi Sacks said is important–we when search for meaning, we cannot find it in that which we are looking at but observing the whole and beyond the whole.
And you are totally wrong that morality is something that evolves since the 20th C was perhaps the bloodiest in mankind’s history. And now look where we are going–if stealing is such a crime–why is Obama doing it with free abandon? The question remains–what is an atheists’ moral guide book–is it purely utilitarian–is this what you are saying? Then all kinds of things established would quickly go by the wayside. Why work so hard to save elderly people from death? Why fund things for special needs persons? A lot can be said here but I will pause to see if you answer.



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Steve Schlicht

posted May 22, 2009 at 3:40 pm


Hi David!
Since all you’ve done with this “revisit” is to cherry pick and shoo away those responses that were a bit nuanced and tangential as missing the mark on answering your question, while obviously avoiding those that did, I thought I would give it another go as well.
I assert that your recent practice is an example of the “fight or flight” reflex and that you’ve merely taken a couple of swings at those posts you figure you could handle and ignoring the tough ones that challenged your assertion that the universe needs a transcendent well-spring to tell us how to behave.
I will take this as an invitation to offer a repeat of the same “conversation” we had last time and see if you’re up to understanding the direct and meaningful answer:
Here is my earlier response for your review:
Let me start by stating that atheists get their morality from the same place that any of the various and assorted religious adherents do, *their own minds*, based upon practical personal experience and the successfully developed human tendency for empathy.
After all, what makes religious adherents pick which religious claims and “values” they assert are “moral”?
Are they just told what is moral from extraterrestrial beings beyond space and time and abide by it without their own personally derived justifications?
It is equally valid to ask “Where do the God(s)ess(es) get their morality from?” and why do so many have the same desires of each respective religious adherent, which often conflict with believers of other religious claims regarding what is moral?
Just as we can see the evolution of “morality” within religious “interpretations” over time, from primitive and bloody, genocidal deities who crave the smell of burnt offerings to ever newer and newer divine directives and revelations purportedly sent via angels or bushes through to specially chosen human conduits in private moments, we have come to understand that the survival of our species is dependent upon reciprocity.
Each cultural “lesson learned” over time and history brings new views on how we should live and treat others.
The relatively recent occurrence of developing nuanced language and the ability to record these lessons has been paramount in the explosion of cultural expression, morality and ethics.
As we have learned these lessons of death and war and hate and destruction, so too have our witch doctors, our sages, our shaman, our rabbis, priests, monks, preachers and…most importantly, our scribes and legislators.
Now, for the most part it can be reasonably observed that social and political power is derived from purported direct association with super beings beyond space and time (especially all powerful, invisible and unfalsifiable ones who really, really go for our fancy hats, scepters and brightly colored capes), so human representatives always have to have just the right interpretation and direct knowledge of absolute “morality” to shop out to those who have already used their own minds to decide to “like it” (most often because their folks and neighbors told them so and they seem happy).
So, with all of these factors in mind, my view is that we should keep moving on as a species and learn the lessons of the divine right of kings and become responsible for our own lives and deep abiding loves and find a balance of reciprocity within the wondrous thermonuclear jewel that is the vast universe in plain view.
In short, even *you* recognize that behavior that is not successful will “fade away” (your choice of words) and that is how we’ve survived and arrived at reciprocity and empathy as successful traits.
Again, no deities required.
Thoughtfully yours,
Steve Schlicht
Biloxi MS
PS “Variousness” aka variety is the spice of life and is, in my view, a valuable and cherished difference between atheists and religious adherents who seem to just want to be told what to believe, what to say and how to behave from other men claiming to be special conduits to the desires of invisible super beings beyond space and time.
I do understand that you may disagree!



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Your Name

posted May 22, 2009 at 3:54 pm


The question is not as difficult as some like to make it out.
Morality is behavior of pack animals evolved to facilitate the survival of the pack. All moral dogma is ultimately a strategy to maximize the quality and quantity of the group. It’s not hard to see why pack animals who’s behavior benefits group survival would, well, survive, while those that do not, do not survive. Biopsychology, plain and simple.
When people created gods, they tried to write out these rules that evolved with them. The rules create an attraction / revulsion response in our brain. Often, we confuse unrelated revulsions with moral rules when they are not related (Kosher food, for example).
As for meaning of life as a whole, the question presuposes the result. For something to have a purpose it has to be created. Meaning that when you ask the question “what is the meaning of life?” you are already presupposing the existance of a magical creator.
Life, itself, has no inherent meaning other than survival. We give our individual lives meaning based on how we view our own life. We are the creators of our own meaning.
What makes me sad is that the best theists can come up with for a meaning of their own lives is to serve an invisible magical being which is clearly just a superstitious creation.
Why can I not just enjoy a beautiful garden without believing there are fairies at the bottom of it?



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Your Name

posted May 22, 2009 at 4:46 pm


Glen Davidson: As most of us pointed out, we simply do not receive values that are transcendent
Fair enough.
and we have the evidence to back up our claims.
This, however, is incorrect. The transcendent (which need not necessarily be God, a god, or even theistic–think of the dharmakaya in Buddhism, e.g.) can neither be proved nor disproved in the ordinary sense of “proving”, by definition. After all, if the “transcendent” indeed transcends the cosmos, no means within the cosmos can prove or disprove it, right? Simple logic.
Simple logic which ignores how the “transcendent” has generally been conceived, “demonstrated,” and what it is supposed to explain. The “transcendent” is often considered to be beyond demonstration now, mainly because it has (in these uses) given up its previous meanings to become, in essence, meaningless.
The transcendent has long been considered to be what is evidently not what is simply caused within this world, so that mathematics was “transcendent” to the Greek mind. In fact, it was apparently very spiritual and religious to the Pythagoreans, and into the medieval church with its Platonic numbers and proportions.
So I don’t deny that by the definition you use it’s simple logic, however I’m more than a little aware of how the “transcendent” was indeed thought to be demonstrable in the past, such as through finding numerical proportions in “nature,” which to the minds of the ancients would have to be due to causes “beyond nature.” Perhaps I should have referred directly to how I understand the “transcendent,” which is not at all as you do “by definition.”
Even Kant, who speaks ill of metaphysics, considered “mind” to be transcendent, although it’s not so clear how he considered it so (other than that he went black box mode generally). Kant’s “transcendental idealism” points to processes and “categories” which he clearly does not consider to be due to, say, evolutionary processes. Like the ancients, he thought he had actual evidence for “transcendental” notions of mind, the undeviating operation of mind without respect to “nature” or “nurture.” He is credited for understanding what Hume mostly did not, the fact that we do have modes of understanding which do not come from experience, and he credited these modes to “transcendental idealism,” though not specifically to god or some such thing.
As an aside, vis-a-vis “intelligent design,” one could perhaps state that life has a “transcendent” cause were it truly shown that “natural causes” were inadequate. Identifying such a “transcendent cause” as a “Designer” is not in any way a proper conclusion from the lack of adequate “natural explanations,” by contrast.
I had a lot of philosophy courses, hence I am likely to use the meaning of terms as meant in philosophpy. And although in philosophy transcendental claims may be beyond “prove” and “disproof,” they are not beyond evidence altogether. I consider definitions which put the “transcendent” beyond any sort of evidence to be basically vacuous, and a way to keep religion from being falsified.
Today in science we don’t consider Kant’s “transcendental idealism” to be credible, mainly because the mind apparently works according to physics, with the stamp of evolution firmly guiding it. This would be true of moral thought, too, since morality evidently arises from minds interacting with other minds, to put it simply. We do indeed have evidence that the mind works according to chemical, electric, and physical phenomena, while the “transcendent” has in philosophy usually been predicated upon finding what goes beyond the causes that we know.
Of course if you want to say that you believe in a transcendent mind that goes somehow beyond the causes we know, that cannot be disproved by science. The point from my perspective is that we have the evidence for a non-transcendent mind and non-transcendent morality, while there is nothing to indicate that these have any kind of transcendent component, a la Kant.

The issue, I think, for those who say that there is a problem with a lack of transcendent meaning or moral order is not individual but societal. If there is no transcendent, then on what basis do we approve our system and reject Nazism or Communism? The most you could say is that they “go against human nature”, but a Nazi would say that it is human nature for the strong (i.e. the Aryans) to rule and to kill the weak as needed.

And why did we eventually reject slavery, when religion made provision for it? Unfortunately, although I think almost all of us would like to be able to discover and wield an unquestioned morality, it does not exist for either theist or for non-theist. And I am well aware that many theists opposed slavery, it simply does not appear to be because they were holding onto traditional religious beliefs.
He was a wise man who invented God? Perhaps so, however morality continues to change as society evolves.

To put it in Hobbsean terms, we have a social contract, yes–but he didn’t think the social contract should be a liberal democracy. Hobbes favored a rather despotic state that would keep humanity’s nastiness in check so that it would be less “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Yes, that’s why I mentioned that the social contract was refined by Locke and others.

Our present-day ideals of democracy, equality, and human rights are a very brief blip (so far) in human history, and (as we can see by looking at the world) precarious and not shared by everyone.

And traditional religion was usually opposed to the moves toward democracy, equality, and human rights that we now cherish (rightly or wrongly). That is the problem with claiming that transcendental morals come from religion.

In short, without a transcendent ethic, there’s no ultimate reason to choose between us and China, or us and Al Quaeda, since any claim about goodness, appropriateness, naturalness, etc. will be matched by equal claims from the opposition on their system.

First of all, our current beliefs came despite the transcendent morality claimed by religion.
Second, I primarily see today’s morality as being an essentially capitalistic and bourgeois morality/ethic. The safeguard for it is the success of our economic, and even military, systems. Furthermore, I believe that it has serious blind spots from any ideal sense of community (its cheapening of life, particularly), but which flow from the capitalist ethic. So I cannot suppose that our current system should be sanctified as being transcendentally true.
Third, we obviously can and have appealed to human desires for freedom, wealth, and individualism, against despotic systems. Certainly such an appeal led in part to the downfall of the Soviet system. The success of democracy is not due to military muscle and economic strength alone.

Just trying to show why, from a theistic perspective, an ethic unsupported by the transcendent doesn’t seem to work–just as you and others have been trying to explain why for you it does. We’ll all find out one way or the other in the end.

I am not saying that an ethic unsupported by the transcendent works, I am saying that the evidence indicates that no ethic is supported by the transcendent. If the transcendent safeguarded our morals, why aren’t we ruled by kings and different laws for different classes of people? Or, perhaps, why aren’t we led by chiefs who are quite answerable to the people, which apparently was the original order (an attractive one to many of us)?
Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/6mb592



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Glen Davidson

posted May 22, 2009 at 4:55 pm


Just to make clear (I apparently messed up the formatting), the following paragraph was written by Turmarion. The one after, and many to follow, was mine–this being in the preceding comment by myself (which came out as written by “Your Name”):

This, however, is incorrect. The transcendent (which need not necessarily be God, a god, or even theistic–think of the dharmakaya in Buddhism, e.g.) can neither be proved nor disproved in the ordinary sense of “proving”, by definition. After all, if the “transcendent” indeed transcends the cosmos, no means within the cosmos can prove or disprove it, right? Simple logic.

Simple logic which ignores how the “transcendent” has generally been conceived, “demonstrated,” and what it is supposed to explain. The “transcendent” is often considered to be beyond demonstration now, mainly because it has (in these uses) given up its previous meanings to become, in essence, meaningless.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/6mb592



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Harry Tomlin

posted May 22, 2009 at 6:46 pm


Religions based on the Bible and Atheists are the extremes of belief/non-belief in a God. The Agnostics have the only logical position on that question. I studied and researched for several years trying to determine if the God described in the Bible was a real God or a creation of the old Prophets to demand obedience to the moral standards they created. Some of the readers of these comments may be interested in my book and can check it out at:
http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TheGospelTruth-ARealityCheck.html



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Turmarion

posted May 22, 2009 at 7:16 pm


Brent Rasmussen : By our current society’s lights, yes, ignoring the plight of the Roman slave is wrong. But – hard as it is to say – it doesn’t really matter in the long run. The ONLY thing that matters is our survival as a species.
But why does our survival as a species matter, ultimately? And by your reasoning, if a despotic, repressive, and draconian society turned out to be the best way to preserve our species, then it’d be just dandy, right? The plight of those starving in Africa or being oppressed in China or working in sweatshops in Viet Nam or the unemployed and unisured here “don’t really matter in the long run”, right? It’s your prerogative to look at it that way, but you’re not going to get a lot of people to agree.
Maybe the best-suited form of life on our planet is the unthinking bacteria. Or a cockroach. Who knows? We certainly don’t. All we can do is keep survivin’, day by day, year by year.
Then why should we “keep survivin’ year by year”? Maybe it’s time to give the cockroaches a chance.
And the way we do that is to agree on a few things. Don’t kill each other. Don’t rape each other. Obey our society’s laws. Protect children. Protect each other.
My point is that there is less agreement on this than you think. Usually the “each other” means “members of my tribe/clan/society/country”. Generally killing and raping people in other tribes, even killing their children, is just dandy, at least based on human behavior throughout history.
Does this make our lives any less important, any less meaningful? To understand that is *is* all just arbitrary? That there is no “transcendent standard”, but instead just us humans, getting along as best we can?
If I accepted those premises, I’d say, “yes, it does make our lives less meaningful–totally meaningless, in fact. Speaking only for myself, if I came to be convinced that there really, truly is no overarching, transcendent meaning, I would say that life is a horrible, cruel joke, and either off myself or go out and drink/drug myself until I died. If there is no ultimate meaning, then considering that the vast majority of humanity throughout history have lived in abject misery, and still do, I’d say that we should just nuke the planet and put it out of its misery–and if the cockroaches survived, it’d be their turn to be miserable. Not everyone would see it that way; but many would.
I don’t think so [that there needs to be ultimate meaning].
Your prerogative–I disagree.
We create meaning and worth for ourselves all the time.
Nazis created meaning and worth for themselves, too. Also, though I’m not an existentialist, I have great respect for them for calling it as it is: they were atheists who rejected any absolute meaning and correctly deduced from this that human life was meaningless, ugly, and futile. This is why existentialist literature emphasizes isolation, anomie, and attempts to “make meaning” that ultimately fail. Read some Sarte and Camus some time.
I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding here, since the idea is being bounced around that it’s only theists who posit transcendent meaning and that theists get their morals “from” God. Non-theistic systems of thought (which you could call “religions” or “philosophies”, according to your taste) such as Buddhism, Jainism, some forms of Hinduism, some forms of Daoism, and many of the Greek philosophical schools, just to name a few, posit every bit as much of an Absolute as any theistic system (karma, dharmakaya, shunyata, the Dao, the Logos, etc.).
Also, no intelligent theist thinks that God “makes” moral rules. Socrates refuted that long ago in the Euthyphro. It would be better to say that God and the transcendent moral order are one and the same. Just as the “law” of gravity is better understood as a natural relationship between masses, the moral “law” is the relationship of people based on their nature (and perhaps developed by means of evolution, since God can work in many ways) according to the structure of the cosmos He has created. So, it’s not that God “tells” us that murder is wrong, but may change His mind about it later; rather, it is God’s very nature, and thus the nature of our moral sense, to regard murder as wrong. We, as imperfect, fallen creatures, unfortunately don’t always “get it”, but that’s how it is in this world.
Glen Davidson: And although in philosophy transcendental claims may be beyond “prove” and “disproof,” they are not beyond evidence altogether.
I’d agree with you there. I think there is reasonable evidence (the existence of the cosmos itself and certain aspects of the human mind that seem to require immateriality) for the transcendent. Perhaps you disagree. That’s OK–as I said, there is no agreement on this by everyone, and though there may be evidence either way, there is no proof or disproof.
I notice you keep talking about “religion” and “traditional religion”. In this context, that’s not what I’m arguing per se. I think there is a transcendent “thing”, if you will–names may vary–which accounts for the cosmos, our minds, and (indirectly) our morality. Yes, aspects of our morality may have evolved, but this evolution is due to the structure of the universe, which is due to the transcendent (call it what you will). As I pointed out, even many non-theistic traditions would agree with this much.
The safeguard for [our current morality] is the success of our economic, and even military, systems.
See, that’s the problem, by me. If China were to become more economically and militarily successful (which is not inconceivable), then our morality is replaced by another which we might not find as “good”. But that would be just too bad, huh?
Third, we obviously can and have appealed to human desires for freedom, wealth, and individualism, against despotic systems. Certainly such an appeal led in part to the downfall of the Soviet system. The success of democracy is not due to military muscle and economic strength alone.
Yes, but after the rough ride of the 90′s, Russia is moving back toward authoritarianism, with the support of most of the people. Also, remember that Hitler was democratically elected, as was Ayatollah Khomeini. I’m not sure the evidence is as strong for the appeal of democracy across cultures as you indicate, nor for its long-term viability without “military muscle and economic strength”.
If the transcendent safeguarded our morals….
See, I don’t think it does. I think it is the basis for ethics, not the guarantor thereof. The explanation for this would vary in different religious systems: avidya, Original Sin, maya, free will, and so on. In deference to David and the Jewish theme of this blog, I especially highlight the Jewish explanation: God gives us two impulses, the yetzer ha-tobh (“impluse to good”) and the yetzer ha-ra` (“impulse to evil”). The idea is that man is supposed to grow and mature through internal struggle, rather than getting a free ride by being “perfect”. In any case, the idea is not that the transcendent forces us to be ethical or answers all our questions–if it is the “broadcaster”, we are obviously flawed “receivers”. Rather, the idea is that through all the uncertainties and struggle, there is something out there that ensures that there is a meaning to it all and that, however imperfect our perceptions, there is something out there beyond just the brute facts of nature on which to base ourselves.



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Jim O'Brian

posted May 23, 2009 at 2:36 pm


I think the variousness of the answers comes from the problem in defining morality. You agree with posts that are following your definition and reproving those that follow a different definition.
But this atheist would agree with all of the comments that you posted.
Morality does exist outside of us and our Universe. Our evolution is both a real phenomena and an expression of a theoretical reality that can be modeled with game theory and more generally, math. We have an ingrained moral sense because following that sense is often the best way to survive and propogate in our complex socially-dependent lives. That sense is effectively objective.
But, there is nothing underpinning that sort of morality. But, the problem with saying that is that it underlies a problem with that sort of thinking of morality. If evolution’s morality is inadequate on those grounds, then how can anything’s morality not fail the same test? Even if there is a god that says that something is right, we can still ask what allows god to choose what is right. And how can there be an answer to that? Effectively, you are demanding a basis for morality that simply cannot exist. So if you define morality in that manner, then you are ensuring that morality cannot exist.
And people are a lot better then you give them credit for. My “readings” for you would be to go and purchase the “Freaks and Geeks” complete series (all of one season) which I think does a good job of showing atheists living morally by an evolutionarilly guided course. They might be flawed and too much into themselves, but I think it does a good job of showing that they are ultimatelly good people. Perhaps it will help you see the good in people.



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Tim Daugherty

posted May 27, 2009 at 8:30 pm


The basis for our morals come from the herd mentality. There is safety in numbers so therefore humans do not like to be separated or ostracized by or from the pack.
The meaning of life is exactly what you make of it. For this Atheist its love and family.
The reason I’m an Atheist is best described by occam’s razor.



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Your Name

posted May 28, 2009 at 10:42 am


***My Dialogue with Atheists Continues***
OUTRAGEOUS!
You have recieved over 145 responses to your idiotic questions. How many points have you responded to specifically. I see none aside from your arrogant dissmissal as “uniform inadequacy”. Dialogue!? Hardly.



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unyoked

posted May 28, 2009 at 10:45 am


The universe cannot provide its own meaning, just as a logical system cannot prove its own premises (according to the Gödel incompleteness theorem). This meaning of the universe that lies outside the universe we call God…. Morality is not written in nature: you can’t read ethics off the world.
Your precious quote that so eloquently sums up your position in someone else’s words is nothing but a bare assertion! Placing “just as” between one statement and another doesn’t mean the two are in any way connected.



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Your Name

posted May 28, 2009 at 11:13 am


I own the above two comments.



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TaoFrog

posted June 12, 2009 at 2:52 am


Jim O’Brian I love your reply. It makes sense, and I understand it completely. Thank you for making a civil point! And I checked out Freaks and Geeks, awesome show!



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