As a self-described “apatheist” I find myself agreeing with much of what you have to say. However, since I don’t consider myself an atheist per se, I’d like to speak to you about the necessity of God. It’s not that I don’t care whether or not God exists. It’s just that I don’t think the question of God’s existence is relevant to human affairs. I find it hard to believe in a “soul” or in God, but it seems to be an equal leap of faith to deny that which we can’t touch or see. A bit of context: I went to Catholic school for four years and have read the Bible cover to cover, as well as commentary (mostly on the Hebrew Scriptures). This is just so you know I’m not talking directly out of my ass.
Morality seems to be the lasting impact of religion in people’s lives. Certain thoughts or actions are said to carry a negative (or positive) component beyond their purely utilitarian use. For example, from a purely logical (in the computer sense) standpoint, there is nothing negative about murder if the variables are right: if you would not likely suffer negative consequences from it, if the result would lead to improved survival odds for you. But yourself, and myself, and most people in the world would view the act of murder as fairly unequivocally evil.
The point of divergence between the hyper-religious and the mainstream (which is, sadly, shrinking) seems to be that fundamentalists believe that in the absence of an enforced morality, based on God, there can BE no morality. But that raises an interesting conundrum. If you use the Ten Commandments as support for your moral choices, how do we know they are your choices? Are you just refraining from murder because God says he will punish you if you don’t? If that is the case, then I advance the opinion that those claiming Biblical justification for their morality (or Qur’anic, or Talmudic; indeed, any religion’s holy text contains legal doctrine to a certain degree but as Christian is most prevalent in my area I use it as an example) are in fact following the purely utilitarian, mechanical view of morality introduced above. They are performing certain actions because of fear of punishment- i. e. in their view, failing to obey God’s law has negative survival value.
So far I’m pretty much parroting back a lot of what’s on your site. I came to this realization independently, though. I’m not saying that everyone who obeys a holy book secretly yearns to steal, kill, rape, and watch MTV, but I do believe that by handing off the important moral decisions to someone else– especially someone you can never talk to or see– it allows people to live without thinking about why they do things. And that’s comforting, to some.
Back to apatheistic beliefs. I know that the question of God’s existence does have a defacto effect on human life, considering the amount of malarkey perpetrated in His name. But I believe it SHOULDN’T. My morals are pretty much the same as those of most religious people about the big stuff, but holy books often have strange guidelines and there we start to diverge. For example, the whole sex thing. I think that’s one area where the Church (and capital-C Church, to me, represents any monolithic religious organization, not the eponymous Catholic Church) has held back society.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think we should run around naked (if only for health concerns) and I don’t believe in Woodstock-style orgies, unless they’re being held in a private place where people not participating can go about their daily lives without distraction. But abstinence-only sex education, oppressive rules regarding mingling of the sexes (Bob Jones University’s policy on dating, even after the 2000 update, is still hilarious), and other demonizations of sex and sexuality hurt society more than they help it. Now, I’m all for people having the right to make their own decisions, but when those decisions start to infringe in the public sphere, mostly in public schools, then we start to have problems. I’d like to see some religious groups found “religious public schools” where they can teach Creation and abstinence-only sex ed all they want; in the real public schools we can have real education. I imagine religious families would complain about having to pay taxes to support schools they don’t use but they chose to be religious and it’s not their prerogative to determine where exactly their tax dollars go. It’s never been.
This is sort of rambling so I’ll close it off. I’ll continue sending you letters as I think of things to write them about, I love your site. Keep it up!
PS If it turns out I’m wrong and I end up in hell, I’ll be glad, because I wouldn’t want to be associated with any God who could send a person who behaves in the way I do to hell. I try to do the right thing and I assume it’s all going to work out OK in the end.
Some interesting ideas here!
I think that when you say that God’s existence isn’t relevant to human affairs you are implying more than you are saying outright. For example, I assume that if you thought there was a significant chance God existed and intervened in human affairs you wouldn’t make that kind of statement. Is that correct?
I disagree with you about there being nothing negative about murder, even when we look at it from a purely logical standpoint. Let’s say that Bob values logic. Bob realizes that he can get a better job if he kills his boss and he knows he can do so in such a way that he won’t be caught. If Bob concludes that it is therefore okay for him to kill, then he — being logical — would agree that it would be okay for another person in his position to kill. Which implies that Bob thinks it would be okay for someone to kill him in order to get a better job. But Bob doesn’t want to die. So if Bob wouldn’t want someone to kill him to get ahead, then he can’t kill someone else to get ahead because to do so would make him logically inconsistent, and Bob values logic. Therefore Bob doesn’t kill because killing would have a negative effect — it would show that his thinking is illogical.
You mention that most people feel that murder (sufficiently defined) is wrong, even without reasoning about it. Many religious people would say that this moral sense comes directly from God, so when you decide that something is immoral — even without Biblical support — you are relying on God for your morality.
This leads us to your next point — why obey that moral sense? I agree with you that religion essentially says that you should be good because you will be punished otherwise. I think this is unfortunate. Such thinking can let people do immoral things when they can rationalize it by saying that “God will understand.” It also leaves them with no moral foundation if they lose their religion.
If I understand you correctly, I agree with you that there are certain moral truths that exist with or without the existence of God (this is the subtext of my in-progress book, 2Q). I’d say that all of the “important” 10 Commandments fall into this category.
Thanks for writing!