The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

December 12, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Values Matter, Not Belief–Lessons From A Second Viewing of Avatar

Is it true that in all circumstances a purely secular worldview is preferable to a religious one?  In answer to this question, I offer the following thought experiment.

Imagine that we actually inhabit the world of Avatar.  You are Jake Sully.  The Americans attempting to colonize Pandora are strict secularists.  (This is not a far stretch since the Americans in Avatar never mention any religion of their own and laugh contemptuously when the commander says the “aboriginal horde” believes their sacred mountain is protected by “their deity”.)  The indigenous Na’vi believe in Eywa.  As the cultural anthropologist Grace understands (“I’m a scientist remember, I don’t believe in fairy tales”), Eywa can  be explained in purely material terms but this is not the way the Na’vi understand her since they are not as scientifically advanced.  So the Na’vi’s understanding of Eywa can be characterized as inaccurate and primitive.  Before your exposure to the Na’vi, you never encountered religious belief because all such belief had been eradicated from your culture through education centuries before.  You were taught that all religious belief was wrongheaded and could never promote the good.  When you first encounter the Na’vi, you are offended by their belief and believe it makes them inferior to the Americans.  You are clear that the Americans’ secular worldview is demonstrably more accurate than the Na’vi’s unscientific belief system.

Given this scenario, would you side with the Americans against the Na’vi based on an absolute preference for secularism over religious belief?

If you would not, then you agree with me that values, not belief, are the most fundamental determinant of the good.  In which case, you should make common cause where possible with believers who share your values.  You may in fact have more in common with them than secularists who do not.

In proposing this thought experiment, I am NOT suggesting that the Americans’ destructive militarism and consumerism in Avatar was the necessary result of, or could only have resulted from, a secularist worldview.  Certainly, the Americans could have a belief in their own God which spurs their rapacious sense of entitlement.  But such a religious belief would not be necessary for the Americans to feel entitled to consume Pandora’s resources at the expense of the Na’vi and Pandora’s exquisite environment.  Neither would the absence of religious belief inoculate against such a rapacious appetite.  The secular Americans could justify their destructive colonization, indeed attempted genocide, through a secular belief in themselves as a superior people and nation. 

The point is that the presence or absence of religious belief is not the determining factor of which way of being is preferable.

In proposing this thought experiment, I am hoping to make more clear to my atheist compatriots why I am not a rabid opponent of all religious belief–as the most hostile comments I receive seem to come from them.

On another note, the Avatar scenario can also dispense with crude utilitarianism as a moral framework.  I think it is implicit in the film that the Americans outnumber the Na’vi in population and “unobtainium” is key to the Americans’ survival on “their dying world.”  From a purely utilitarian perspective then, the Americans’ displacement, even destruction of the Na’vi, would be justifiable, even perhaps morally required.  As Mr. Spock famously said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.  But on that point, I must respectfully disagree with the otherwise wise demi-Vulcan character.

And the moral of Cameron’s Avatar is arrived at not through reason but beautiful emotional exposition, and emotion, more than reason, I believe, is the foundation of moral judgment.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson



  1. […] Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Values Matter, Not Belief – Lessons From A Second Viewing of Ava… ( […]

    Pingback by » How Many Secularists and Non-Secularists Can Dance on the Head of a Pin? — December 30, 2010 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

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