Why atheists can still be happy

A common complaint regarding atheism that I have personally encountered relates to the fact that atheists typically appreciate that there is very little/no chance that there is an afterlife, as a result this life with ethics and morals still in play, is meaningless.

I think the complaint extends from religious teachings that say that reward or punishment awaits those who are moral or immoral. Anyone who would believe this as based on God would see that a lack of God would mean a lack of requirement to be moral or immoral.

There are several fallacies at play here. At the simplest, immorality is typically breaking the law, and breaking the law typically results in punishment in this world anyway, resulting in, whatever way you want it,  punishment. If there is no afterlife you can bet your bottom dollar the vast majority of atheists are interested in this one, and would not be so blase about throwing thirty years down the toilet in some concrete chamber. Furthermore, morality is almost inherently understood. I do not do immoral things because they are (in the words of a semi-famous internet comic) a dick thing to do. I could argue fairly strongly that this makes me a more moral person than a religious observer, who by their own admission to the argument placed above would state that they are moral merely for the point to avoid punishment. I won’t do that, because I’m sure there are plenty of religious observers who do not believe that point and are equally moral not just for fear of retribution.

This leaves us to consider the inherent uselessness of life. Clearly put, it is not. Life is certainly useless at some chemical level wherein it can be defined as a self-replicating bunch of elements but that is to miss the point entirely. Just as it is pointless to describe a guitar as a piece of wood as opposed to a musical instrument, it is equally pointless to say that life has no value because it is chemically considered that way. So what? Chemistry is applied physics, which would make the considerations of chemical elements nigh useless at a physics level (don’t even get started on quantum stuff). Biological function has value at the level of biology, just as money has value at the level of currency- there is nothing inherently valuable about a coin but you don’t see the industrial world worrying about that. Life and its plethora of wonders and enjoyments because at the level of one’s life, it has meaning and purpose. This is a meaning and purpose that is just as valid within its own sphere as the meaning and purpose of physical reactions in a chemical sphere.

Update

I’ve just heard a great quote by Carl Sagan that somewhat elucidates my point a bit better: “The beauty of things is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together”.

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~ by freeze43 on April 8, 2010.

6 Responses to “Why atheists can still be happy”

  1. This is really interesting. Obviously, I am a Catholic (although a non-attender, non-praying, non-practicing one at that) but to me the core of the religion isn’t based around heaven-and-hell type arguments. Even within the religion itself there is a continuous argument about whether ANYONE goes to hell (or if the place actually exists) due to the nature of God in the New Testament.
    With that being said, I don’t think that the moral-immoral argument is necessarily as simple as it appears. What is moral to one may be immoral to another and vice versa. Even easily categorised things like murder instantly become less black and white when given a context (he was trying to kill me, or she had plans to commit acts of genocide etc). So, with that being said, even the law doesn’t necessarily restrict these acts of potential immorality, in which case it just comes down to the individual.
    I did think that your point about people being “equally moral not just for fear of retribution” was a good one. Surely to be ‘moral’ it is just a societal man-made concept? The second we are starving, put in dire situations and so forth, that whole construct breaks away, and we become instinctual- and not all of our instincts are to nurture, I would imagine!
    Do you think it is worth considering then, that morality can fall away easily? That it has less to do with retribution, or not being a dick (lol @ that btw!), than to do with the comfort of our situations? (For some reason that scene in the Titanic where they are in the water and sitting on other people/pushing them under the water to survive comes to mind. All these people dressed in their fineries, drowning other people without a single thought- is this not the ultimate image of the will to survive?)

    As for purpose… well, that’s entirely an individual thing. Thousands of people end up killing themselves because of this lack of direction and purpose.

    • Morality as a man-made concept is to at least a strong degree, something I agree with. It would also add weight to what you previously stated in regards to the moral-immoral argument- it is a societal demand about what is moral and what is not. Take a person out of a society, and more evolution-based morals are used (avoiding incest for example). However there are also inherent morals about conducting yourself in practically any society that are true for all societies, and these tend to be, for all of us, inherently understood (murder, rape etc.). This further adds weight to my point regarding God being a requirement for morality- He/She/Them are clearly not needed.
      Morality does not fall away easily in my opinion, as society tends to be all-pervasive. Collapses in society to which great moral decay occur I believe occur due to the act of the collapse, not the fact that there is a different society. For example, when the Roman Empire fell, the Romans had a big orgy and committed heinous acts left, right and centre. Nevertheless, the socially organised (but nevertheless socially distant) barbarian hordes actually treated these same Romans very well despite being, for a Roman, culturally and socially bereft. The people on the Titanic succumbed to instinctual urges, but this was a moment of panic, not of rationality. If for some reason these same people were left on a desert island a la Lord of the Flies style, while the society they organised might not be a particularly pleasant one, it would nevertheless have order and morality.
      Thousands of people do kill themselves due to lack of direction, but I would argue plenty kill themself due to too much direction. Culture is an incredibly powerful force, one that is only made more perverse by the inclusion of religion.

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