A few responses to criticism of atheism

This is a very impulsive blog, really. I was just going through the article on Wikipedia “Criticism of atheism”. There was one point that particularly struck me. I had the impulse to reply then and there (in the article, itself!), but remembered Wikipedia is only supposed to describe and not opine.

The point that got me started with this blog goes like:

“Catholic and some secular intellectuals attribute the perceived post-war decadence of Europe to the displacement of absolute values by moral relativism. Pope Benedict XVI, Marcello Pera and others have argued that after about 1960, Europeans massively abandoned many traditional norms rooted in Christianity and replaced them with continuously-evolving relative moral rules. In this view, sexual activity has become separated from procreation, which led to a decline in the importance of families and to depopulation. As a result, currently the population vacuum in Europe is filled by immigrants, often from Islamic countries, who attempt to reestablish absolute values which stand at odds with moral relativism. The most authoritative response to moral relativism from the Roman Catholic perspective can be found in Veritatis Splendor, an encyclical by Pope John Paul II.”—Wikipedia.

Now, I don’t want to get into statistics and support or disprove what has been stated above, particularly with regard to atheism (relative morality) resulting in negative population growth, and subsequent immigration. Its veracity, simply on sound logical grounds, isn’t really worthy of contesting. My point is about how in an argument, like the one above, a very important idea has been missed—the idea of truth—the one of being truthful to oneself and wanting to know the truth. More clearly, can one “start” or “continue” to believe in God, merely because it makes one more moral. Can truth be chosen? And, chosen—not because of inherent merits of assertions—but on the consequences of believing or disbelieving it? No, the issue is not WHAT the truth is; the issue how the truth is “arrived” (if indeed there is such a thing as that) at? Is it not hypocrisy a person would indulge in if he/she CHOSE to believe as facts certain propositions only because they’d have certain “benefits” or “advantages”? How could a person delude and shortchange one’s consciousness in matters that are most fundamental to one’s existence—questions like where did I come from, or who created me, or what is the purpose of life; or alternatively, if you’re an atheist, how was my existence brought about, or how my existence is going to affect the state of affairs of this Universe in general? Such a chosen truth would rather be self-deception.

There are others who believe that one SHOULD continue to believe in God only so that they have a shoulder to lean on in times of difficulties, or a stingy hand to blame for all the deficiencies in their lives are being dishonest, and dishonest with THEMSELVES, which may or may not be immoral depending upon the consequences, but when such people “think” on such matters, their doing so (thinking on such personal matters) seems entirely besides the point. This can be simply termed as “autobrainwashing”.

Returning to morality: it can be loosely defined as “the sense of what (thoughts, words and acts) are right or wrong in a given circumstance.” And, I do believe that for a great deal of common men with as an end, a harmonious existence within a society, morality when enshrined in a carrot-and-stick principle like religion, works best. I don’t know if it is alright to try to make those who remain moral—only because of fear of punishment upon leading immoral life, and temptation of a “good afterlife” after a moral one—doubt the existence of or believe in the nonexistence of God. For, such people, who are plenty in number in my humble opinion, are likely to become “freewill-upstarts”—not knowing the responsibility that comes with the liberty of not being: under the constant scrutiny of an omniscient vigilante; subject to rules of a supreme judge; and, recipients of punishments or rewards meted out as verdicts. Let’s call this religious morality. But, what about those who choose to be moral only because they “feel good” about it? Morality, as has been pointed out by a few, evolved out of a necessity of leading a social life; the need to have a pattern of behavior that would be most conducive to coexisting with others despite lacking a feeling of solidarity, and since coexisting would be the best option available. This can be called social morality. Morality is most effective when viewed as a collective shrewdness—how does this sound for an incentive to lead a moral life: you don’t harm others, so that (when the same dictum if heeded by everyone), ultimately no one harms others, and as a consequence, no one harms YOU? Or alternatively, help whenever opportunity comes and circumstances permit, so that everyone would help someone else, and occasionally, YOU would be at the receiving end of someone’s helpfulness when in need. I’m no anthropologist, but, this seems to be the very likely way morality would have begun its “career”. I know to some moral puritans might be petrified by this cunning commerce of acts becoming a social norm—a “cheap” way of leading one’s life, but then it’s no different from the carrot and stick religion-hijacked-morality (I was inspired by this phrasing [and not the idea per se] by “religion has arrogated morality” in the preface of “The Fountainhead”). At least, it (the practicality in morality) brings the responsibility of morality to where it rightly belongs—in the individual. Okay, but, we all know that this “chain of custody” of goodness and badness, doesn’t work, the reason for which, is maybe the impatience in individuals. People think like, “if I help someone, and that someone, or for that matter, someone else, doesn’t help me in need, would I not be deceived. Would that not be unfairness to me?” Or of course, logically, “if I am nice with everyone, and what if someone else sabotages my interests? Again that would be unfairness, as well.” Such doubts are difficult to remove, for they are valid, actually. That’s why to play it safe, everyone should be nice! And as it is, religious morality has not been absolutely successful in curbing immoral acts (crime, as a simple example).

So, I come to a question of “how people who believe in afterlife (or consequences of one’s acts that come into effect after one’s life) come to act in an immoral way?” In simple words, how a God-fearing (and paradise-loving) man acts wrongly? Of the many, one reason for this is that religious morality (morality as demanded by one’s religious beliefs) is quite relative. What might be undoubtedly moral to you, might be immoral to someone else. Take for instance, bride and groom kissing each other in a Christian marriage ceremony. Such a thing would be unthinkable in a traditional Hindu or Muslim ceremony! My merely trying to point out how it is NOT immoral just because it does NO HARM to any one might be construed as immoral assertion, and invite such passionate rage! Also, this relativity has a lot to do with an inherent absence of a guiding principle. The only guiding principle is “because someone said so”. Okay, who that someone is, could again be quite variable. Within the same religion, there can be various sects, the leaders of which exhort different behaviors. And, there’s no guarantee that that someone doesn’t exhort a few things only out of self-interest, right? Now, if one goes back to the roots of embracing a religion, and the bundled morality that came along with it, one would realize that there is one thing that is common between the two (the act of CHOOSING to believe [in God] and morality)—a certain kind of opportunism. If one could choose to believe in God, only because it SUITED one’s purpose, one can CERTAINLY choose to be quite elective about what is right and what is wrong—DEPENDING UPON CIRCUMSTANCES.

That’s where maybe social morality scores, in being much clear as to what is right or what is wrong—it has a guiding principle—LIVE, LET live, and be happy NOW, and NOT trying to score brownie points in a game with undecided and ever-changing rules for a reward you get after the END of your life. You help me, I help you; you don’t harm me, I don’t harm you, simple! That’s social morality. Of course, there’d be situations of predicaments, but they’d be pertaining to prioritizing between a greater good and a lesser harm, etc. And, mind you, even in such cases, if religious morality gives credence to one decision or the other, it is after all, an individual opinion (imposed upon many). Take for instance, euthanasia—most of the religions state that since you don’t have the ability to give one a life, you don’t have the right to take away one. But, here one forgets the individual concerned. Granted that life is indeed a special thing, but what about whether, the one to who it belongs WANTS it in the form available? If you can’t relieve a person’s pain, don’t impose that pain by taking away the only means of relief available. If one looks carefully at the concept of religious morality, the problem with it is not that it is attached to religion or to a belief in a supremely powerful force, the problem is that, I repeat, it does not have a fundamental guiding principle. The same problems can be encountered with any body of moral principles that are decided arbitrarily, and more importantly, which are not open to time-to-time modifications depending upon the circumstances. Here, by changing with circumstances, I don’t mean opportunistic applying of morals, but they would have to be in keeping with the principles of “live, let live and be happy”. The problem comes because what is moral and what is not is decided by a select few in the society, and others imbibe that morality without questioning it, or trying to understand the guiding principles. So, such problems can also arise with RIGID systems, where certain qualities are extolled, and certain acts disallowed WITHOUT clear bases. It is knowing the basis for moral principles that is of utmost importance. Say, for instance, in a very affluent nation, if leading a simple life would be considered virtuous to an excessive extent, affluence would become redundant, and with it, innovation, and development of technology, as there would be no place for the “good life”.

One more criticism of atheism has been “There are no atheists in foxholes”, which would become clearer with the following context:

“The statement, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” is used to imply that many avowed atheists really do believe in God, and that in times of extreme stress or fear, such as when participating in warfare, the belief will surface, overwhelming the less substantial affectation of atheism.” –Wikipedia.

What can be conceded as possibly a fact is that in times of extreme stress, someone can end up believing in God, but how does that give any credence to theism? A person, who turns theist in times of stress, does not believe in God because he’s convinced about it, but because he WANTS to believe. Now, as everyone would know with a bit of introspection, what one wants to believe, and what is true are not necessarily same things. By this argument, I’m not trying to state that which (atheism or theism) is more sound in epistemological (simply put, the study of knowledge) terms but only that “there are no atheists in foxholes” is at best a personal attack on all atheists, but not a valid one against the principle of atheism per se.

In what all I’ve written in this blog, I’ve not focused on arguments of whether God exists or does not, but only the (few of quite numerous) attendant issues of consequences of belief or nonbelief. The arguments of theism, deism, strong atheism, weak atheism, agnosticism, etc, are too exhaustive, that move roundabout in great circles, and most importantly, cannot be done justice to in a monologue like a blog! Not to mean those are uninteresting 😉

By the way, very coincidentally, I encountered this somewhat pertinent article on Wikipedia about the relativity of religious morality—Euthyphro dilemma, which goes like this: “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”—and who other than the (philosophically) naughty Socrates could have come up FIRST with such a dilemma!


6 thoughts on “A few responses to criticism of atheism

  1. Well written. reminded me of the time I decided to join an Art of Living course (because everybody was raving about it, I didn’t feel any need, still don’t)- and we were told to leave her ‘thinking’ and questioning outside the door and to just believe. After that found it difficult to take anything they said seriously. You r first para says the same thing. I always wonder that expectation of belief. How does one <>make <>oneself believe??

  2. Thanks for reading such a l-o-n-g post.

    I’m venturing out to almost advise, and if it so turns out that you’re wiser than me, then I offer my apology too in advance!

    There’s no need to make oneself believe. It’s only the conviction that an assertion can inspire because of its sound logical basis, that can and should make us <>believe<>. If anyone demands of us unconditional trust, more often than not, that’s out of ulterior motives. Such a demand can only be interpreted as “I’m not good enough to earn your trust, so simply trust me”. The reasons for trusting can be fairly plain and practical. Like, if a shopkeeper asks your trust, then he’d know that if he cheats you, then you’ll go to someone else.

    Thanks for telling me about the nature of “The Art of Living”. I’d always suspected it to be like that, though have never attended it. Inner peace cannot be found by expelling all doubts from the mind, rather such an attempt would bring more disharmony. I also don’t think that philosophical questions and inner peace cannot coexist. Inner peace only comes with finding answers or the satisfaction of at least trying. Moreover, inner peace cannot be instilled in assembly-line-manufacturing fashion!

    Take care. And <>peace be upon, er within you!<>

  3. Ketan said, “It’s only the conviction that an assertion can inspire because of its sound logical basis, that can and should make us believe.”

    I agree with this. I had responded to this post before as you had asked, but it looks like my comment didn’t post. But I think I addressed the subject just now in your subsequent posts.

    I have written on the topic of morality many times on my blog, but I may do another post consolidating the previous posts soon. I’ll let you know if I do. My regular readers probably won’t want to hear me write on it again, but I might do it anyway.

  4. Hi!

    Thanks for responding here!

    Welcome to my blog.

    I’ve not been told prior to this about any problem with posting comments on my blog. But then I’ve also been told there’s always a first time!

    Anyway, I’ve been getting an idea of your take on the world, and I’ve replied elsewhere to your comments. TC.

  5. Karla, by any chance had you included any link in your comments? Though I don’t remember imposing through blog settings any restrictions on readers wanting to comment. I’m just concerned as to what could be the reason. TC.

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