[Updated to add:
Axiom 0: The physical universe exists objectively and our sense perceptions of it are more or less accurate.]
Axiom 1: There is no god.
As I wrote in a previous post, an axiom is a proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident. I think it’s pretty darn clear that the universe operates on its own according to natural laws which are inherent in its structure. Occam’s Razor tells us “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” or “all other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” No deity is necessary given the universe we observe. QED.
But, you might say, God is outside the universe, or immanent in all parts of it. Very well, it’s possible to prove all the natural laws of the universe in their own terms, starting from first principles. Please demonstrate how there is an element missing from those laws that can only be explained by the presence of God. Please prove the existence of God or anything “outside” the universe from the standpoint of the physical universe and what can be observed inside it, since the evidence of our senses is the only thing we can collectively be reasonably sure actually exists and is not the product of sheer imagination.
There. No god, gods, deity, collective consciousness, what have you, to my satisfaction. Let’s move on.
Pascal’s Wager, paraphrased, goes something like this: Worshipping God either benefits me if He exists or is a null if He doesn’t, but not worshipping Him if He does exist means I’m screwed. Now, I’m sure that the wager is a lot more nuanced in the context of Pascal’s writings and all that, and the Wikipedia article points out lots of lines of criticism, but taking the wager on its face my response is a lot simpler.
To digress for a moment: when I was about fifteen years old I had a dream, in which it was clear that I was deceased. I stood in a long line of dead souls slowly ascending a freestanding stone staircase. Just past the head of the staircase stood an titanic giant bearing a titanic axe (I played D&D, remember), and as each soul reached the top of the staircase, the giant would cleave them in two. The souls that cringed away from the axe were … cast down, or destroyed, or something. The souls that stood confident, even defiant, as the axe struck them were thrown into an elysian realm to dwell forever. The interpretation I’ve always taken from this dream was that if I lived as a moral and honorable person, then my salvation was assured regardless of whether I’d worshipped God during my life.
This was long before I’d ever heard of Pascal’s Wager, but when I did I instantly rejected it as being self-serving and amoral. Turning the wager inside out made much more sense to me: If God does exist He should judge me on the content of my character, but if He does judge me not on the content of my character but on whether I obeyed arbitrary forms of worship then He wasn’t worth worshipping anyway.
As you might imagine, I describe myself as an atheist. I used to call myself an agnostic back in high school, but by college decided that was just being wishy-washy — I truly did not believe in the existence of God, therefore “atheist” was appropriate.Â I wasn’t raised in any religion or with any particular sense of spirituality inculcated into me by my parents, so I’m not an ex- or apostate-anything. That means two things: one, when I say I’m an atheist I don’t mean I believe there is a God that I choose not to worship, I truly mean I deny the existence of any god or gods; two, since I was never a member of any church or religion I have no bad memories, and therefore I hold no grudges.
I don’t mind the existence of organized religion, or of religious or spiritual people in general. To each their own — if someone wants to believe weird things, who am I to tell them not to? Religious tolerance is one of the things that makes this country great.
I demand, however, that the religious show me the same courtesy — they must be willing to tolerate my lack of religion. I don’t mind an evangelist of any denomination approaching me with the intent of convincing me. That’s free speech on their part, and is another one of the things that make this country great. But I insist that they stop evangelizing once I tell them that it’s not welcome; that goes back to tolerance.
Morality and Ethics
Where does morality come from? Atheists are frequently posed the question, “if you don’t believe in God, how can you be a moral person?” I reply that morality comes from our responsibilities to each other as civilized human beings.
Rabbi Hillel said “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” This is my favorite statement of the Golden Rule (which turns out to be much more widespread in philosophy than I thought). Contra Hillel, however, I don’t see that the Torah is necessary to the question at all.
If the Golden Rule is our first moral principle, our second should be whatever increases our sense of responsibility to each other is good, in that it strengthens the bonds of civil society (which I’ll get into in a later post) and increases the chance that individuals in society will act morally toward each other. Together these two rules should form a virtuous cycle.
I’ll put down two more axioms to reflect these basic rules:
Axiom 2: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.
Axiom 3: Whatever increases our sense of responsibility to each other is good.
Many religious people seem to take the view that we must act in a moral fashion or suffer punishment from God. This strikes me as Stockholm Syndrome writ cosmically large. I believe that it’s much more in keeping with our humanity and free will to say that a person should choose a religion if they find its morality agreeable, rather than they should profess a morality because they hold a particular religion.
Now, it’s possible that most religious people, at least in the Judaeo-Christian religious matrix with with I’m most familiar, instead view their morality as a positive assertion — imitation of Christ or a corollary — instead of a negative stricture. I completely respect this choice, and wish them all the best.
“When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” (apocryphally attributed to G.K. Chesterton). This statement is self-evidently wrong as a general rule; my existence is the counter-proof. But while I claim no particular superiority over my fellow humans, my sort of atheism seems to be pretty rare.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a negative correlation between religiosity on a society-wide level and various self-destructive or just plain wacky ideas. See, e.g., Western Europe, a mostly “post-religious” society, and fount of communism, fascism, existentialism, deconstructionism, multiculturalism, etc., etc. Compare the United States, with a much higher rate of religious adherence, and where none of these notions have the currency or popularity that they do in Europe.
In epidemiology there is the concept of herd immunity:
[I]n diseases passed from person-to-person, it is more difficult to maintain a chain of infection when large numbers of a population are immune. The more immune individuals present in a population, the lower the likelihood that a susceptible person will come into contact with an infected individual.
I believe that this concept extends to religiosity vs. bad philosophy. Not everyone in a society need be religious, but having a certain level of religiosity means that bad philosophy destructive to everyone in the society can’t get a foothold.
I realize that I’m saying that my enjoyment of civil society as an atheist is dependent upon the existence of a large number of religious people in that society. I’m okay with that — it’s their choice, after all, and since I’m an atheist and not a nihilist I don’t feel any need to tear them down. As I said, I hold no grudges.
Next in the This I Believe series will be my opinions on what makes us human, civil society, cultural relativism, and generational clash. I’ll be coming back to the principle of herd immunity when I talk about the Second Amendment and the place of personal weapons in a civil society.