Monday, September 1, 2014

If I Were an Atheist...

Greetings, mortals!  Christ, in Chapter 5, verse 44 of the Gospel of Matthew, teaches,

But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?  Do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?  Do not even the publicans so?  Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Which, of course, I always strive to do.  But it's hard!  Throughout my ministry on Twitter, I have encountered atheists who disbelieve the very existence of God.  Loving them despite their persistent apostasy has been difficult.  So I sought guidance from a moral authority nearly equal to Christ: Atticus Finch.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

So, to better follow Christ's teachings, I thought I'd try what I believe infidels call a "thought experiment."

If I were an atheist, what would I believe?

Well, first, I'd be human.  Second, I'd have concluded after inquiry and introspection that there's no reliable proof of God -- of any gods.  I'd believe that the available evidence points to nothing supernatural at all.  In addition, I'd maintain that what evidence we do have is consistent only with a naturalistic universe.  And while I wouldn't currently have an explanation for how all known life arose, I would see from what science tells us that the known diversity of life is well-explained by the occurrence of genetic mutations and application of selective pressures over the billions of years the Earth has existed.

Wow, ok.  Wow, I'd have to reject Creationism.  I'd no longer believe that all life was Created by an omnipotent God, in whom lies infinite plenty.  Instead, I, like all but a few biologists, would believe that everything we know about life -- above all the universal condition of constant, brutal competition for scarce resources during finite lives -- supports the theory that life emerged on Earth billions of years ago and evolved from there to its current states.  Moreover, my view would be supported not by a holy text, but by centuries of consistent findings in the fossil record, naturalistic observations, and laboratory experiments.

I'd also be skeptical about my own, personal experiences of God.  After all, neuroscience has demonstrated that my feeling of a personal connection to something greater than myself during prayer and ritual worship is, on a chemical level, indistinguishable from connections with the divine felt by others who believe in a God or gods that I hold to be false.  I, being skeptical, would therefore be inclined to conclude that my personal experience of God was nothing more than the operation of chemical processes in the reward center of my brain.

Based on all of that, I'd reject the supernatural events described in holy texts.  After all, none of them has been observed or repeated.  All of them are explainable by science in a way consistent with a naturalistic universe.  On top of that, if I viewed holy texts skeptically, the contradictions, demonstrable inaccuracies, and immoralities they contain would strongly suggest human authorship, rather than inspiration by an omniscient, omnibenevolent God.

So there's no God. Nothing outside holy texts supports His existence.  In fact, those same holy texts undermine His existence.  Where do I go from there?

Ok, well, if there's no God, the universe wasn't Created for me.  I'm not exalted above all other living creatures.  In fact, I exist by mere chance.  The universe not only doesn't care about my fleeting existence, it, outside of those of its sentient subcomponents who know me, isn't aware of me at all.  

Furthermore, no God loves me above others because I happen to worship Him in the right way with the right words.  My origin and existence are no more remarkable or memorable than that of any other person. Even if my life becomes the stuff of legend on Earth, I will be, at best, forgotten with the collapse of civilization.  Should records of my exploits be discovered and translated by whatever civilization arises after ours, or after that one, or after the next one yet, I'll be forgotten when it collapses.  And no matter what, I'll be forgotten here when the Sun expands and the Earth becomes, like most of the universe, inhospitable to all life.  

Not even the idea that my exploits would be broadcast to the stars is a comfort.  After all, the expansion of the universe will eventually stretch out that signal to the point of unintelligibility.  Even if it were to persist long enough to be received and understood by some extraterrestrial beings, they, too, would eventually come to nothing.

In short, virtually nothing I do matters on a scale meaningful to anything outside my immediate environs and anyone other than those whose lives intersect with mine.  And no matter what I do, no matter how great I am, I will die, decompose, and be forgotten -- just like everyone else.

So life is meaningless.

Well, yeah, obviously.  I'm an atheist for this thought experiment.  But I've still got this pesky will to live.  I can't shake it.  Even though the universe isn't handing me a reason to go on, I seem to need to find one.  In fact, I seem to need to assign meaning and purpose to what I do in order to find what I do rewarding.  I suspect that's evolutionarily advantageous.

It also seems that the biological processes that evolved to help me survive as a member of the current global apex predator species, which initially achieved dominance as an endurant pack animal, make me feel happy when I do things that those biological processes make me feel are meaningful.  And a lot of the things those processes make me feel are meaningful just happen to build connections with the humans around me.  I suspect that that's also evolutionarily advantageous.

So, in other words, even though no God exists to supply my life with meaning, I have inborn in me, independent of anything external or supernatural, the need to live a life of purpose.


Shh, I'm thinking.  So while, to the universe, my life is infinitesimal, I need to live it.  And I need for it to be full of meaning.  And who cares whether those needs arise from biochemical processes?  They are mine, and they are constant and inescapable.

And, holy crap, everyone else needs the same things too.  Because we all evolved the same way.  The biochemical processes that drive me drive everyone else.  And...and none of us is loved by a God above another.  There is no God to do so.  None of us is favored in any way by anything other than chance.  

We are all, therefore, creatures of a common origin and destination.  Nothing else will ever help us, comfort us, or guide us.  There is no other life but that which competes with us for what we need to live.  We are all we have.  That's why we evolved to work -- and have succeeded only by working -- together.

Um, so...

Shh, still thinking.  This means no one is my better.  Not only are we all shaped by mutation and natural selection to need each other, but everyone is driven by the same basic needs as me: water, food, shelter, companionship, competence, and purpose.  When other people behave in ways that increase my access to those things, they enrich my life.  They enrich that part they've touched of the only life I'll ever have.  When they're selfish, they diminish and make difficult part of the only life I'll ever have.

And when I'm selfish -- when I behave in ways that benefit me to others' detriment -- that's what I do to them.  I take a part of a fleeting existence that is equally as precious as mine and I make it worse.  But when I'm generous, thoughtful, and caring, I make it better.

Then, in turn, I'm rewarded!  The biological processes that drive me to be a collaborative member of a collaborative species make me feel good about how I acted.  I get not just the same dopamine-driven satisfaction I once found by saying the right words in the right way at the right time to the right God, but the knowledge that I've given of myself in a way that improved a life equal in value to my own. isn't meaningless?

It would appear not.  I, an atheist, find my own life's meaning.  And I find it most frequently by acting to enrich the lives of my co-equal human beings.

Wow.  It sounds like thinking that way would take a lot of care and consideration.

Oh, yeah, it sounds like a ton of work.  Thank God I'm not an atheist!

Thank you for reading, mortals, and as always, I look forward to your comments and questions.  Take care, and God (who totally does exist) bless.

No comments:

Post a Comment