The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 31, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Right and Wrong in a Godless World

“A godless world.”  It has the ring of an epithet, even to my unbelieving ears.  One imagines an obscured sun over a desolate landscape, lawlessness and depravity, something out of McCarthy’s The Road, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or a Soviet gulag perhaps.  But the world I inhabit is in fact godless, and it is nothing like that.  It is the same world in which believers dwell.  The rain falls and the sun shines on believer and non-believer alike.

Right and wrong do not lapse along with faith.  Morality and ethics are not dependent upon belief in a celestial Watchmaker or punishment in an afterlife.  There is mounting scientific evidence that our brains are hard-wired with an intuitive moral sense, which may start to kick in as early as infancy.  (See, e.g., Paul Bloom, “The Moral Life of Babies,” NYTimes Magazine, 5/3/10, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html?scp=1&sq=morality%20and%20children&st=cse)  Humans are social animals.  Our individual survival, and ability to reproduce, are dependent upon our relationship with the group.  As social animals, we have to have rules for interacting with each other, coordinating efforts and distributing resources.  We can see such incipient moral senses in other social animals.  Evolution, not God, has designed our individual but social minds with an inherent moral capacity.

For very good evolutionary reasons, our native moral capacity is decidedly within-group based.  One can see this in religious belief itself.  Given the near universality of religious belief among human cultures, one can be fairly certain that the “godless heathen” was not irreligious at all but a believer in a different, likely equally jealous God.   Because religious belief is most often a social glue within a group, it is also often a barrier between groups, a tribal remnant that can promote hatred of the quite human other.  If we seek vengeance for our group, we are firm in our belief that our bloody hand grips God’s just sword.   

It is true that once belief in God falls away, one has to do a lot more thinking for oneself to establish right and wrong.  But belief does not necessarily lead one upon a right path, and atheists are not all fallen Dostoyevsky characters.    The Golden Rule it turns out is a demonstrably good idea that has been derived in somewhat different formulations by numerous traditions.  Values determine our character, not belief.  Integrity, compassion and cooperation are truly their own reward, in this life–in part because they foster trust.  No belief in the supernatural is required to dedicate oneself to them.  All one has to do is look around and see how their practice improves the world—and their absence creates an all too real race to the bottom and quite literal living hells.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

Other References:

Frans De Waal, Our Inner Ape, Riverhead Books (2005) (http://www.psychology.emory.edu/nab/dewaal/)

Frans De Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, Princeton University Press (2006)

Len Fisher, Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life (2008) (http://www.lenfisher.co.uk/)

Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds, HarperCollins (2006) (http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~mnkylab/HauserBio.html)

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin Group (2002) (http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/)

Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, Times Books (2004) (http://www.michaelshermer.com/)

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2 Comments »

  1. Hi there. I was intrigued by the title of your blog as I describe myself as an atheist with a sense of spirituality. I love what you’ve written. Congratulations on starting a new blog!

    Comment by timberwraith — May 31, 2010 @ 5:15 pm | Reply


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