The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

July 18, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: What Makes Us Human

That we are unique among animals is clear.  Somehow our consciousness developed a complexity that allowed us to craft a remarkable diversity of cultures, transform our environments to better suit our needs and colonize the world, from tropical jungles to arid deserts to arctic tundra.  We don’t know how our complex consciousness came to be.  But it is fundamentally what distinguishes us from other animals.  With it have come the language, imagination and abstract reasoning that have fueled the astounding advance of our knowledge and technologies.  Our capacity for complex, reasoned thought is our hallmark difference from other animals. 

At the other end of the spectrum, our capacity to feel distinguishes our consciousness from mechanical intelligence.  Life is so multi-variate and contingent, we could not as a factual matter depend on reason alone to make judgments and decisions. The science of the critical role of feeling in decision-making is strong. So, a key to our humanness is the complex web of reasoning/feeling that constitutes our living consciousness. 

This web of reasoning/feeling includes a moral capacity.  Evolution imbued us with a “moral sense.”  We are hard-wired to experience emotions like approval and disgust, pride and shame and appear to have a built-in intuition for fairness, wanting to reward behavior we feel is equitable and punish behavior we feel is not. Our hard-wired emotional, intuitive moral capacity is built upon by culture and moral reasoning, with which we ponder and attempt to answer and enforce our answers to complicated questions of morality.   

The fact that our moral capacity is a distinguishing feature is captured in the Genesis tale of our banishment from the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Having transcended the naïve state of other social animals, we are destined to struggle with existential questions.

“What is moral” is one of the most contested questions there is.   Reasonable minds can differ, but like other areas of our knowledge, our moral knowledge has improved over time.  In much of the world, we no longer criminalize interpersonal transgressions such as adultery, execute people in the public square for any reason, or condone chattel slavery.  We have discovered a far better mix of order, liberty and equality than in the past, becoming more “humane” as a result.

The cornerstone of our increasing humaneness is our willingness to attempt to relate to each other despite apparent differences, to recognize that humans are all alike in certain fundamental ways (e.g., that we all value our own lives and liberty and want to pursue our own happiness), and to agree to treat each other based on that recognition.  

We are reasoning/feeling, moral animals emerged through evolution from a naïve state, destined to struggle with the consequences and conundrums that necessarily result from our unique condition.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson


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