An atheist’s view of evil

Man Contemplates Nature
Man Contemplates Nature

I’m an atheist, and this raises lots of questions that perhaps religious people do not have to answer. First, the implications. I have to believe in a life of thoughts and feelings and emotions and purposeful action, because of course I experience it. But if I do not believe that there is a supernatural force that acts on nature, I have to believe that matter gives rise somehow to my mental life.  However, in a sense its more ethereal than matter – the current understanding of the mind is that it is pure mathematics – individual neurons do simple math but they are interwoven to create patterns of complex math, evolving over time – and those patterns somehow create our thoughts, feelings, etc.  That is a very strange belief, if you think about it – almost a spiritual science.

I have to believe that my life’s trajectory is determined, more than I would like. In a sense we would all agree on this. If you put yourself in a situation where you could rescue a drowning friend by throwing a life-preserver, you would no doubt throw the life-preserver. Your do this because of who you are, and who you are is a product of life-experiences, and genetics. You don’t say “I’m going to exert some free will now, and not rescue my friend.”

Or think of a past situation you were in, where you gave in to some temptation. You may reprimand yourself that you should have exerted more free will. But now, no amount of free will can change what happened in the past. The past is determined.

You are the product of a chain of causality. If your parents had not made the choices that brought them to the same city where they met, or if past migrations, continental upheavals, etc. had not happened, you would not be here.

So if we are determined, then how do we define evil? If our minds come from our brains, and our brain circuitry is out of our control, then is anyone responsible for anything – no matter how courageous, no matter how innovative, no matter how good or evil, that the person is?

One problem that religious have to deal with is the cruelty, sometimes the terrible cruelty, of life and of some men toward other men. I remember reading of two American soldiers in Iraq who were captured, tortured, and killed. I thought – here are two men who did not have to be there, and went to defend the U.S., and Democracy, etc, and this is the price they paid for being better men than I will ever be.

But if you are not religious, then it is no surprise that the most evil fates can befall men and women. We are all going to die, and some of us are going to suffer in the process. Recently I read about villages of people demolished in a mudslide in Latin America, or 40 people burned to death in a fire. or a bunch of migrants killed by gang members in Mexico because they did not want to join a criminal gang. Were they good people? Yes. God did not protect them, because God does not exist.

Then we have to ask ourselves – what basis for morality is there, if God did not give us morality? If people are just matter, then are not people expendable? Nature certainly treats us as expendable.

I think the answer that you basically do have to take a morality on faith. You have to have some axioms on which to build the edifice of morality. Or a principle – such as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” or “keeping the world in ecological balance” or whatever.

But in a world without God, there is no guarantee that truth will prevail. There is no guarantee that man will not plunge into a dark ages where free thought is a faint memory. There is no guarantee that good will win. Think of the mass murders in China and Russia, where tens of millions of the best and the most independent types were murdered. Did the good guys win there?

Religion can be cruel to its believers. I remember reading of a survivor of a concentration camp who said one reason he was an atheist was that he saw religious Jews pray in the camp – “and still they died”. Imagine being religious and thinking that what happens to you in such a camp is a punishment for your sins, or that God is not listening to you because you did something wrong?

Now believers do have some interesting arguments. They ask for instance “Why is there something, rather than nothing.” Why should we exist at all? Or if the universe is not eternal, then what cause started the universe? What existed, separate and apart from the universe, that created it?

And if you truly respect and like someone, its hard to believe that they are just dust, and to dust they will return.

I have no answers. But the belief in a purpose and intelligence outside of nature has a lot of problems as well. And if we do not believe in this purpose and creative source outside of nature, then our understanding of evil may have to differ from the religious understanding. If man is not connected to some source of divine knowledge then it is not so surprising that men live their lives believing in all sorts of illusions, and will kill for those illusions, and that men differ radically based not only on their environments, but on the makeup of their temperaments. The temperaments could be biologically based – in other words, the emotional parts of the brain could be wired differently. Of course there is no proof of that at present.

One interesting book that contradicts some of what I say above is by a cognitive scientist named Michael Gazzaniga. His book Who’s In Charge says that physics (both quantum theory and chaos theory) indicates that the universe is not determined.  I’m not sure that he’s right about quantum theory or chaos theory – chaos just means that you really have to know the exact initial conditions to perfect accuracy, and then you can determine what happens, and I just read that quantum theory does unfold in a determined way, until you observe it.   (Stephen Wolfram, another scientist, shows that simple cellular automata that are determined are still not predictable and he thinks that this fact has bearing on ‘free will’).  Gazzaniga also says that the mind is a level of description, just as a lower level of neurons is, and that the mind is just as valid (if not more so) as a causal agent. I may be mis-understanding his book a little here, but I think that is what he is saying. David Deutsch, in his book The Beginning of Infinity also makes the point that reductionist arguments aren’t always the best way to look at things. For instance, physicists have created small areas on earth that are colder than anything in the rest of the universe. Would we explain this phenomenon on the atomic or subatomic level? Or would we explain it with minds and purpose?

In fact, Deutsch believes that the human mind is basically capable of explaining anything for which there is an explanation. Philosopher Daniel Dennett says you can both be determined, and have free will.  If he read this post, he would think I am confusing two different concepts.

Professor Gerald Shroeder, who does believe in God, has collected a number of quotes by scientists about the constants of the universe – how even a tiny change in any of them would rule out life.  A counterargument has been made that any puddle of water could be amazed at how well it fits the jagged shape around it, but I think this is a poor argument for the following reasons.  First of all, some of the constants are really on a knife edge – a slight change means no life, or even no universe.   Of course, if we exist, then the probability of those constants being correct is 100 percent, but why should we exist?  Physicists sometimes posit an infinite number of universes, and suppose that the huge variety would mean that at least one of them would have the correct constants to produce us.  But the concept of infinity means that there would be a subset of these universes, also infinite  that are exact clones of our own.  The concept of infinity applied to any physical object seems far out to me.
But so much of the limits of science are against intuition, for instance, one respected Physics model says that “beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless.”

So it could be argued, that while a creator of the universe is against the intuition that all things must obey physical laws, and any entity with purpose and thought must be made of matter, so much of science itself is against intuition that we can’t reject the creator on that basis.

I surprisingly find myself agreeing with religious people often on political issues, and sometimes on social issues, but to agree with them on God, I need a bridge, not a leap of faith.

Muslims demand "Hang Atheist Bloggers"
Muslims demand “Hang Atheist Bloggers”

(for explanation of the demonstration photo see: http://www.andrewbostom.org/blog/2013/04/08/violence-and-mainstream-islam/).
http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/cosmo/lectures/lec20.html

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “An atheist’s view of evil

  1. Great perspective here! I have been looking for more atheist views explaining their view on evil.

    So my question is: Why can’t the religious (let’s say Christian) people have this same answer?: “But if you are not religious, then it is no surprise that the most evil fates can befall men and women. We are all going to die, and some of us are going to suffer in the process.” Don’t religious people also believe that “the most evil fates can befall men and women.”? It sounds like you are using an “atheist” answer that Christians actually have in their bibles. It says something like “the fall of man” or “sin”. That would mean that Christians “expect” evil just like your answer.

    Why do religious people have to “deal” with evil? “One problem that religious have to deal with is the cruelty, sometimes the terrible cruelty, of life and of some men toward other men.”

    And atheists can just chalk it up to: “Oh it’s expected based on our nature” Sounds like the same reason for evil the bible talks about.

    Thanks again for your article. Looking forward to learning more.

    1. Granted. But let me ask you this.
      1) A religious view assumes that the sinner knows the difference between good and evil in a situation.
      2) A religious view assumes the sinner can help himself as well – he can, by an effort of will, avoid doing evil.
      3) Finally, a religious view assumes that we should all be held to the same moral standard.
      I remember when an indoctrinated woman named Hyun from North Korea blew up an airplane full of South Koreans. “Not until she walked into the South Korean courtroom and faced the families of the victims, that the real meaning of her violent act hit home.” Hyun Hee loved her country, she trusted her leaders, and she honestly believed that her mission would help lead to the triumphant reunification of Korea. – So this raises an exception to point #1. As for point #3, the work of Adriane Raine (see my post on him) says that some people simply lack the ability to control themselves that other have people have, and this is related to brain structure. He also said the following in an interview: “I’ve got to be careful here. There’s no destiny here. Biology is not destiny, and it’s more than biology, and there’s lots of factors that we’re talking about there, and one factor like prefrontal dysfunction or low heart rate doesn’t make you a criminal offender. But what if all the boxes were checked? What if you had birth complications and you were exposed to toxins and you had a low resting heart rate and you had the gene that raises the odds of violence, et cetera, et cetera, stuff happening early on in life. I mean, you’re not responsible for that. Then how in the name of justice can we really hold that individual as responsible as we do … and punish them as much as we do — including death?”
      As for point #2, there was a case recently in Afghanistan where a woman named Farkhunda, who was very pro-Islam (she was a teacher of Islamic studies) was killed by an angry mob in front of police. Supposedly she had burned a Koran. The mob took pictures with the cell phones, and were very proud of their action – beating her with sticks, jumping up and down on her dead body, and setting her on fire. Videos of this defense of Islamic honor were put on social media (my guess is by the perpetrators) My point is, even if Farkhunda had burned a Koran, drawn a picture of Mohammed being hit by a cream pie, and accused Muslims of believing a delusion, it would be extremely evil to kill her. As I said, the perpetrators thought they were doing a good thing.
      So that is why an atheist in some way has less respect for the individual than a religious person does, and why the moral worldviews would differ.

  2. 1) Don’t all people, religious and non, believe the knowledge of good and evil is an inherent knowledge? Most people would call that common sense. “Come on dude, you can’t cut in line, that’s just common sense (or common decency)”…says most people no matter their religious flavor.
    a. Shouldn’t we all hope that (within a society) the knowledge of good and evil is “common sense” to have the best possible society?
    2) All religions BUT Christianity believe this. Christianity believes only the outside force (Holy Spirit) can actually change the person. If not from the outside, then it’s a sinner trying to fix a sinners problem. A drunk alcoholic can’t change himself as long as he stays drunk…because he is drunk…and still an alcoholic. That’s a better picture of sin…or: We are all dead in a cemetery, and we all want “life” but we can’t get life FROM ourselves because we are dead. We need some sort of outside help to give us life. If we could rely on ourselves to fix ourselves then who needs God, right?
    3) This story about Hyun only shows that she did not follow a standard of morality (which is now completely against the very point you are trying to make…about a “same moral standard.”) Are you saying that religious people, let’s stick with Christians, are trying to show a moral standard that you don’t agree with and now you want me to agree to your moral standard of good and evil? Which one would you like to force me to follow?
    a. How can you tell a story that attempts to show EVIL after you say only religious people want the same moral standard to guide and judge our actions? You can’t say something is right or wrong, good or evil now that you don’t want to have any standard method to determine actions one way or the other. You can’t say, “I don’t believe in the rules of baseball, but this team over there won.” How can someone win without abiding by the rules by which to award their victory or defeat?
    b. For Adriane Raine, I totally agree there are physical things we can do nothing about that will lead someone to do things that aren’t “good”. But again, if you say there is good, please share your standard of good and evil. Once you present your version of this standard, you are hypocritically calling religious peoples’ standards wrong. You can’t say you don’t believe in God and you hate him too.
    c. For Farkhunda, are you saying what the mob did was wrong? You are an atheist against the moral standard but you are calling someone’s actions “extremely evil”. I TOTALLY agree with you that it is evil, because we know what good and evil is…universally. You didn’t, and either did I, need to be taught that killing her was evil but for some reason we both agree with it being so.
    4) I would say that you and “religious” people, excluding some religious (if you can make an exception for Hyun, I can make an exception for the religion that carried out the evil killing of Farkhunda) agree on 90% of what is good and evil. But why do you get to make your own method to judge this and religious people are stuck with the burden of explaining it? The same evil happens in your world and in religious peoples’ worlds but you won’t accept the standard by which they judge things? Seems very unfair.
    5) Lastly, this line here: “As I said, the perpetrators thought they were doing a good thing.” What do you mean? I thought this was the unreligious definition of “good”. Who are you to judge their attempt of doing good? You may say, “This obviously doesn’t do the most good.” Says who? How do you know if this won’t do more good for their society in 10, 20, or 100 years? You can’t delete the need for a moral standard and then judge others by the standard you just deleted.

    I think what religious people are trying to do is really great, which is: Abide by a standard that you think is the BEST and outside of yourself. That way, it isn’t subjective. It is objective and can be used as an unchanging standard to guide their lives. Could you image a society where the standard of right and wrong changes daily or weekly or yearly? How would we ever have any foundation to live our lives…One day it is good to buy groceries and have an opinion about someone and the next it puts me in jail and bankrupts me… that sounds like an atheist worldview to me. If not, if atheists want to create their own standard of good and evil, please don’t push it on religious people.

    You can’t not believe in God and hate him at the same time.

    I appreciate your views!

    1. One of the points you make is not one that I address in my post. Dennis Prager, who is a believing Jew, says that if you don’t believe in God, you don’t have an objective morality. Personally I don’t “hate” God, I just doubt that he is out there. As far as Prager goes I really have no answer to him in this respect. Can there be an objective morality without God directing the universe? And if so, is it identical to the morality in the bible? Is it identical to the morality that we seem to feel within ourselves?
      You also say that all people have a similar notion of what is fair, what is right, etc. I’m not sure that is true. Take fairness. People who have interviewed both conservatives and leftists find that there is a different notion of what fairness means, at least on the level of society. We might all agree that it is not fair for me to cut in line in front of an old lady on crutches, but on other levels (such as whether we should redistribute the wealth, and if so, to what extent, and is the playing field tilted by “white privilege”) etc, we disagree. When Hitler attacked the Jews, he said he was getting rid of an Evil. (I don’t have the exact quote). As a member of the Jewish tribe (one of the twelve) I of course disagree. Criminals have all sorts of rationalizations for their actions – according to one person who studied them, they feel “entitled”. So again, I’m not sure we all have the same idea of what good and evil is. Maybe on a very basic axiomatic level, we do (though I’m not sure), but on a whole host of issues, people dramatically disagree who is the good guy, and who is the bad guy.

      1. People disagree on good and evil because the further we get away from the knowledge of God and His objective moral values, the more we adopt relative moral values, i.e. I decide what is right and wrong. What your describing is relative moral values. There was only one “absolute” moral value given by God: you are not God. Beyond that lie objective moral values. Objective moral values determine there is a right and wrong for every given situation. We do have some intrinsic knowledge of right and wrong, but it comes from God. The further we move away from God the harder it becomes to know the objective moral laws that determine right from wrong. He never intended us to have to decide between them. We, however, violated his absolute law and therefore are stuck with having to determine right and wrong ourselves, based on fellowship/communion with Him. Because we have pretty much abandoned our belief in Him, we are now stuck with relative moral law. Because we are stuck with relative moral law, then there is no right or wrong and there is no moral law, relative or otherwise.

        The biggest problem I see with most people when it comes to the bible/God is grasping the supernatural. Adam and Eve, Jesus walking on water and being raised from the dead, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by a fish. First, what we fail to recognize are these miraculous events were less common that we realize. Remember, the bible covers a period of approximately 4500 years (leaving out the creation event) so they were not all that common. There were long periods of time God was silent. Second, if God does exist He has to be transcendent and not bound by the natural laws He created (and that we are subject to). If He is transcendent, miracles or supernatural events are not beyond his abilities. If God created the universe, walking on water is trivial.

        I believe the problem of evil and suffering is directly related to violating God’s one absolute moral law, that we are not God. The instant we violated this law, the natural path would eventually lead to relative moral law. So why are we held responsible for original sin (violating God’s absolute moral law)? Well, because every single human that ever existed or will exist would have done the same thing. As much as we may kid ourselves that we are intrinsically good, we are not. If we were, we wouldn’t have (any) laws in the first place. Why did God allows us the opportunity to violate His one absolute law? That is the real question with the existence of God, not why is there suffering/evil. If we never had opportunity to violate His absolute law, we wouldn’t be where we are at. That is a harder question to answer.

  3. I completely agree with you! And I think the questions is then: “How do we judge fairness in a world of subjective definitions?” But then again, like you said, it really isn’t the topic of your article. I apologize for getting off topic with my replies but I genuinely enjoyed your view points. I think we all long for perfect standards and judgement according to our actions. I also believe that comes with Christianity!

    All the best and thanks for the conversation my friend!

    Kyle Bagley

  4. I am a Christian trying to resolve some questions about suffering, and want to understand your positions better. I respectfully offer the following comments and questions:

    “But if you are not religious, then it is no surprise that the most evil fates can befall men and women.”
    If you ARE religious (or at least Christian), it is also no surprise, The Bible teaches clearly that suffering befalls us all, and not necessarily in proportion to our goodness or badness of character.

    “Were they good people? Yes. God did not protect them, because God does not exist.”
    Good people dying in tragedies is not inconsistent with a belief in God. Your assumption is that God SHOULD intervene to save good people from bad things. This is not a teaching of the Bible. Logically, his not intervening in a particular situation doesn’t prove He’s not there, any more than you choosing not to intervene in a street fight means that you don’t exist.

    “Then we have to ask ourselves – what basis for morality is there, if God did not give us morality? …
    I think the answer that you basically do have to take a morality on faith.”
    Why are you willing to fall back on faith to explain an atheist morality, but not to explain God’s existence or workings? Faith is faith. One object of faith is not better than another. Any faith must be in something inexplicable; otherwise it wouldn’t require faith, it would be proven.

    “But in a world without God, there is no guarantee that truth will prevail … There is no guarantee that good will win.”
    I wonder if you have looked into religion seriously, because you misrepresent here what it stands for. There is also no guarantee that good will win in a world WITH the biblical God (at least on the immediate timetable you refer to), because He does not violate people’s free will and force them to act in certain ways. We are not puppets and He will not oblige us to be good. In the Christian faith, He wants our voluntary love and obedience. Many do not choose to offer it to Him. Therefore, crappy things happen and will continue to happen. Again, this logically does not prove He’s not there.

    “Religion can be cruel to its believers. I remember reading of a survivor of a concentration camp who said one reason he was an atheist was that he saw religious Jews pray in the camp – ‘and still they died’.”
    LIFE is cruel to everyone, whether they are religious or not. The difference is whether you will have hope or despair. Some Jews lost their faith and responded with despair in the camps, or even killing themselves after having survived the camps. Others trusted God and came through it with their belief in God intact (including Elie Wiesel, who many misunderstand from his book Night to have “lost his faith in the fires of the ovens;” but if you read his later memoirs, he makes it clear that He remains a believer in God — one who has some complaints and questions, but a believer nonetheless). People who understand their faith deeply usually do not resort to false assumptions like, “I’m being punished for my sin” or “God must be angry with me” because we understand there are more options than that. There is no requirement in Christianity (or Judaism that I know of) to stoically withstand your suffering. We are allowed to cry out and ask questions and complain to God (plenty of that in the Psalms and the book for Job, for starters). It is actually through that process that we come into a deeper understanding of Him.

    1. Andrea,
      You make some points that are persuasive, such as:
      1. The Bible teaches clearly that suffering befalls us all, and not necessarily in proportion to our goodness or badness of character.
      2. Logically, his not intervening in a particular situation doesn’t prove He’s not there, any more than you choosing not to intervene in a street fight means that you don’t exist.

      But if so, then how does God interact with humanity? Does he give us some guidance on how to live, and then stay out of the picture? Staying with the Jewish bible, which I am admittedly not very familiar with, there are a few miracles such as the burning bush and the parting of the red sea. The latter miracle is sometimes explained by natural causes that happened just at the right time, but still, its supposedly by divine intervention to save a group of people. If God normally does not intervene, why did he intervene at that point?

      Orthodox Jews pray at least 3 times a day. Sometimes they will pray before setting out on a dangerous trip, for instance. Why do that, if God is not going to intervene when the bandits attack your caravan?

      You ask why I would fall back on faith to explain any morality. We have a feeling within us of what is right and wrong. It is a matter of faith to trust that feeling. On the other hand, it takes more assumptions to say that the bible is the word of God. That doesn’t mean it isn’t, but a leap of faith is necessary.

      You say: “We are not puppets and He will not oblige us to be good. In the Christian faith, He wants our voluntary love and obedience. Many do not choose to offer it to Him. Therefore, crappy things happen and will continue to happen. Again, this logically does not prove He’s not there.”

      So you are saying here that if everyone did follow God’s purposes, fewer bad things would happen. I would agree that if we were all moral, the world would be a much, much better place. But then we have the strange phenomenon of people killing each other over religious differences. Obviously Islam comes to mind, but in the early days of Protestantism, there was a very violent struggle between it and Catholicism. So there’s no guarantee.

      So even if a doubter were to grant that God exists, the next question that would come up are the moral issues of how we should behave, given that fact.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s