A few questions that I hope our society never takes seriously.

My cousin has recently decided he’s an atheist… or agnostic. He doesn’t believe there’s no God, but he disbelieves in the Abrahamic God. Or something like that. We’re still hammering it out.

Talking to him about the meaning of that belief (or unbelief, or disbelief) has been a real pleasure, because he has no old ossified conclusions to defend, so the conversation is more exploratory than adversarial. I haven’t tried to make him believe in God, because right now he doesn’t seem interested in the sorts of things my God offers–so instead we just talk about what it means to be an atheist.

It’s a fascinating exercise for me, because I’m finding I can just slip into atheism like a change of clothes. While I reject many of its foundations, its internal consistency makes it a very sturdy framework for discussion. When talking with people of other faiths, you don’t get very far before agreeing-to-disagree, because they all have the get-out-of-jail-free card of “God’s inscrutable will.” Atheism is a lot easier to nail down.

I wanted to record some of the fruits of that discussion; and let me start by saying that this is not intended to be a critique, but rather an exploration of atheism. I’ve encountered some ethical questions within the secular framework that are tricky, and fun to discuss; so the idea is to talk about it, not to prove or disprove anything. Admittedly, many of my conclusions make me glad I am not an atheist; but I’d love to hear a sunnier interpretation of these ideas.

I’ve started from a few ideas that, in my view, seem foundational to atheism (and any atheist friends should straighten me out if I’m mistaken):

1. Life is a sophisticated chemical process that began without any intrinsic purpose–a chemical process that is self-replicating and self-preserving, but not deliberate in any meaningful sense–exhibiting “competence without comprehension”.

2. Humans are animals: We exist as one expression of that chemical process, with only hazy distinctions between us and other forms of life. We’re smarter, and we dress sharper, but any other arguments for human “exceptionalism” are difficult to defend. We were not created for a reason–we simply are, and we alone assign meaning and purpose to our lives.

3. Consciousness is centered in the brain: Human identity and self-awareness are generated by the brain–the part of me that is really “me” is the sum of a dense network of neurons–basically a very sophisticated computer–and the purpose of that computer is to ensure that I survive to reproductive age and reproduce. Other functions are happy accidents, but human brains are survival machines, not truth machines.

4. Free will is an illusion. This idea appears to be a natural conclusion from the previous three ideas. Since the neural machinery that dictates our thoughts and actions is too large to be meaningfully affected by quantum mechanics, all human behavior is basically Newtonian–which means it all shakes out in predictable–even inevitable–patterns. Individual humans’ personalities and behaviors are defined by the clockwork of genetic inheritance, environmental influences, and random mutation–and even the mutations are not truly random. This leaves essentially no room for free will.

These ideas have far more weight than they are typically afforded by the atheists I have known. Atheism doesn’t just eliminate traditional sexual mores and silly archaic taboos–it should, if thoughtfully considered, blow the doors off your entire moral framework. This is not to say that morality and atheism are incompatible–but Western, post-Christian civic morality and atheism certainly are incompatible; and it seems to me that most atheists tend to stick with a lot of dilute post-Christian ideas about justice, the Golden Rule and the universal brotherhood of man, not recognizing that those ideas have little justification in a universe without free will, universal law, or human exceptionalism.

Here are a few examples that come to my mind, where our ostensibly secular society is actually riddled with religious ideas that only remain because we have not evaluated them very carefully.

1. Personal Accountability: If human behavior is inherently predictable, then there can be no meaningful accountability for action. Criminals, as malfunctioning machines in the larger mechanism of society, can be repaired, sequestered, or destroyed, but they cannot really be punished; and even taking this enlightened view of evil, we have to ask: who defines malfunction? Who prescribes the repair?

It’s dangerously subjective–it can be as benevolent as vocational training in prisons, or as dark as a Chinese re-education camp. If you’re of the atheist stripe that views religion as a “virus of the mind” (Dawkins’ words), then to what lengths are you prepared to go to liberate believers from their affliction? What about homophobia, fascism, Marxism, anarchism, or any other socially-pernicious ideas?

2. Private Property: In the absence of free will, neither destitution nor prosperity are a matter of personal responsibility–they simply happen to you, as a result of inevitable interactions between your mechanistic brain and an equally mechanistic environment. Thus, the idea that we should respect the accumulations of those who have “earned” it becomes ludicrous.

The frugal, hard-working, and intelligent entrepreneur who goes from rags-to-riches is no more commendable or deserving than the vapid socialite who has money because her daddy had money–neither can help being what they are. How can we, in good conscience, allow the slothful and ignorant to live in destitution and misery, when the rich get to live large simply because they pulled the golden ticket? Shouldn’t we attempt to build a more equitable society than that?

3. Universal Political Freedom: On the other hand, if you’re one of those intelligent, hard-working, and frugal people, why would you hitch yourself to the same wagon as all the imbeciles and freeloaders? There is precious little evidence to suggest that all men are really created equal–in fact, every test we’ve devised to measure cognitive capacity seems to indicate the reverse–so why do we cling to that idea so fervently?

The fascists argued that democracy was a sham–it enslaved the intelligent and productive, stealing from them to buy votes from the dim and gullible mob. Defenders of democracy would respond with rhetoric about individual liberty and the right to self-determination–but that presupposes that humans are even capable of self-determination.

If you believe that humans are defined by their genetic and environmental inheritance, doesn’t it make more sense to keep power in the hands of those who are built to govern wisely and justly? Wouldn’t even the weak and foolish be better off in a world where they didn’t have the opportunity to screw everything up?

You could argue that democracy is worth maintaining because we don’t have any decent means of separating out this morally-privileged class, but shouldn’t we at least be thinking about it, rather than allowing ourselves to be led passively to the slaughterhouse by the venal, prejudicial, and stupid?

4. The Golden Rule: This is one that I imagine will make people uncomfortable, if they’ve read this far; but if all the humans around me are simply sophisticated machines, why should I feel any moral obligation to be kind or just or tolerant of them? When they malfunction, they should be repaired or destroyed (and remember that, absent any moral context, a “malfunction” is simply some behavior I don’t like; and to “repair” them is to make them conformable to whatever purpose I think they ought to serve).

If I am simply a clockwork toy, surrounded by millions of other clockwork toys, what good are my moral codes? I can sacrifice my comfort and happiness for the good of others, or I can impose costs on other people to increase my comfort and happiness; and either way, we will all die shortly, along with all our descendants, and it will all be over and unimportant. Why not be as selfish as your conscience will allow?

Of course, this draconian moral conclusion is easy to avoid for most of us, who have been raised and acculturated to feel compassion, and guilt, and empathy–we avoid acts like rape and murder because we want to think of ourselves as good people, and we’re afraid of the crippling, lingering guilt that would follow a crime like that. But what happens when we encounter people without those compunctions? How do I convince one chemical machine that it is wrong to forcibly copulate with another chemical machine? From what source does human dignity come?

And what if the rapist doesn’t care what I think about human dignity? Do I have the moral authority to violently enforce my will upon the rapist, to prevent them enforcing their will upon the victim? It’s hard to carve out a moral high ground in a world without absolute truth or objective moral law. Right now, our society hangs on to vestigial post-Christian rules-of-the-road, which fortunately gives the majority license to enforce our non-rational ideas about human rights and bodily integrity on heretical elements; but it’s hard (for me) to see a secular justification for that.

Animal Rights versus Human Rights: If we abandon the idea of human exceptionalism, and admit that the only real difference between humans and animals is our cognitive chops, we run into real ethical trouble. Livestock and pets are often more cognitively complex than infants or the severely disabled, but we don’t keep disabled humans in cages and slaughter them with pneumatic hammers when it suits us. We routinely sterilize animals as a matter of population control–but sterilizing the disabled reeks of the bad old days of Margaret Sanger and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

We all recoil in horror at the idea of any human beings–regardless of cognitive function–being treated the way we treat animals, but I don’t think all of us understand exactly why. In my view, a morally-awake atheist must either view some human life as expendable, or else take a radically different view of the rights of animals in society. In this respect, I actually believe PETA understands the moral calculus far better than the society at large. As a believer in human exceptionalism, I consider them to be misguided–but at least their views are consistent.

On a related note, we consider extinguishing the life of an 8 1/2 month-old fetus to be a matter of choice, while the killing of the same child three weeks later is a nauseating atrocity–and, short of some theological discussion about when the soul enters the body, I’m not sure where we could possibly redraw that line. Establishing personhood at birth seems arbitrary; but setting it earlier isn’t any better, and setting it later is barbaric. (Check out this article for an honest, frightening meditation on that very question, from someone who actually understands the secular moral dilemma.)

(I’d like to continue this with another piece on how Western society smashed up against these questions in the early 20th century, but I’ve already well exceeded my 140 characters.)


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