I’ve been performing a minor thought experiment wherein an Atheist character embraces the “mass delusion” of religion for pragmatic reasons. The following is a dialogue I’ve been fiddling with between this character – Atheomoros – and two of his atheist friends regarding shared morality and its value to society. In particular, he favors the Christian moral code and attempts to make a case for adopting it whether you believe in Christ or not.
This is an incomplete draft. I hope to expand the dialogue further and bring in more considerations as the discussion moves on, and if it goes well I’ll add more dialogues to create a book of such discussions.
I would appreciate any feedback you have regarding the dialogue. Do you think it presents strawmen arguments, or do you think it needs elaboration in some direction or another? Please feel free to inform me (constructively, if you please) in the comments below.
Misotheos: There is no need for a god in our modern society. We have developed science to the degree that we can learn the deepest secrets of the cosmos, from the smallest of subatomic particles to the vast darkness of black holes. The whole of the universe is governed by immutable laws that we either understand or are in the process of fully uncovering, and everything can be explained by these principles. Frankly, in light of all we already know, there is no room for a “god” anymore.
Plane: I am enlightened by my own intellect. I am capable of determining what is best in most situations, and if only everyone were as awake to these truths as we are the world would be a better place.
Atheomoros: But how ought we to live, my friends?
Plane: What do you mean, Atheomoros? Live as you choose, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. It doesn’t matter how you identify or what your sexual orientation is any longer, because society has evolved past rigid and static conceptions of such things. Nor does it really matter what moral code you subscribe to so long as it’s good.
Atheomoros: What, then, is “good?” How do we define such a thing? In nature, we see the wolf devour the rabbit, but this is neither good nor evil. We see the deer reproducing in greater and greater numbers across the American plains, without regard for their food supplies nor for predation – indeed, in the absence of predators, they will grow so numerous that they can no longer find enough food for everyone. Yet this is neither good nor evil, but the nature of these animals. In light of this, is there really any way to tell “good” from “evil?”
Misotheos: This sound like religious talk, Atheomoros. We all know that beasts live according to their natures, and so too do we. To live in alignment with one’s nature is “good,” and to suppress it is “evil.” There is no need for anything more than that.
Atheomoros: What about sociopaths, Misotheos? These are people for whom it can be natural to murder, or to steal, or to rape. Is it “good” for them to do such things?
Plane: That’s pure sophistry. A society cannot long exist where people are permitted to harm others without repercussions. That’s why we create laws to forbid such actions.
Atheomoros: So, then, is “goodness” defined by that which benefits society, and “evilness” defined by that which harms it? In such a case, is it not “good” for men and women to pair-bond for life and reproduce at least two offspring apiece in order to sustain society? There is no room for homosexuality in such a case. Is it “good” to force all citizens to undergo testing before reproducing, so that the inferior genes can be kept out of the future gene pool and the superior genes can be perpetuated? That was the thinking in the Third Reich, after all.
Misotheos: Of course not! It is reprehensible to think that a homosexual should be forced to marry and have sex with a partner of the opposite sex, as it is reprehensible to think that some people are naturally inferior and require culling of some sort.
Atheomoros: But this is the natural conclusion of the idea that the benefit of society drives morality. There must be something else, then, if we can see actions that would benefit society as evils. What, then, is the reasoning?
Plane: We can tell from the negative impact of these ideas on people. You can’t help the way you were born – whether it be discomfort in your designated gender, homosexuality, class, or race, you are born with conditions outside of your control, and it is wrong to persecute people because of these things.
Misotheos: We can take that a step further. It is wrong to harm others, as a general rule. The only time anyone should be punished is for transgressing the law of the land.
Atheomoros: What standard should we use for the law of the land? We take it as rote that you can’t legislate morality because not everyone shares the same moral code, but without a standard are we not simply enforcing personal preferences on others? That seems, to me, to be evil – if your personal preference for the way things should be harms others, it is wrong, and if a law causes harm to society on the whole it is also wrong. Surely we must have a standard by which we determine how to cause the least harm and the most benefit for all mankind, both on the individual level and the societal level.
Plane: Surely we don’t need to go that far. As society grows and develops, we are able to see which actions will cause harm and which will bring benefit. We can learn and adapt to new information to create a better society.
Atheomoros: But, then, is it not guaranteed that we will create many laws and societal norms that bring harm in the pursuit of such information? We have no way of knowing whether our new ideas will be more harmful or beneficial until we have studied the result, after all. Furthermore, without the power of the government backing these ideas, how will we manage to enforce them in order to gauge their efficacy? It seems like this idea necessitates an all-powerful police state run by philosophers and social experimenters as a petri dish for such ideas.
Misotheos: I agree, that is a terrible idea. Freedom is a cherished ideal of our society, and none of us want to be forced to suffer under a 1984-style dictatorship where all free thought is suppressed. There is no growth in such a world, and whatever evils that society enforces will be all but impossible to overcome.
Atheomoros: So what we require is a free society where everyone is able to make free choices. The only way we can grow is to have such a society. But what do we do when this society contains people that make bad choices – choices that cause harm? How do we punish a free people without some standard? If we make the law our standard, it is only the standardization of particular whims of the powerful that are enforced on the weak, and it is enforced by brute strength. If we make no standards, we have an anarchy where the strongest are able to enforce their wills on the weak. Either way, we are doomed to a system of “might makes right,” where no one outside the most powerful can decide what is right or wrong.
The religious have a solution to the problem in the form of the divine. What the divinity declares good or evil is truly good and truly evil, and those that transgress must be punished either in this world or the next. It’s the same sort of thing as a police state, but with a truly all-seeing and all-powerful entity that has eternity to decide the proper punishments and rewards. Furthermore, this idea takes the whims of fallible men out of the equation, for an all-knowing and wise superpower sets a perfect standard for people.
Misotheos: Yes, but we still have the problem of fallible men. Take Christianity, for example. The Bible has been translated so many times that it’s almost impossible to tell what was originally said by the founders of the religion. Furthermore, those standards are arbitrary, and if you don’t believe in their magical sky daddy he’ll make you burn for eternity regardless of what you do. And he makes us evil to start with, meaning that no matter what you’re screwed unless you chant their little chants.
Atheomoros: I like that you brought up Christianity, because that’s the standard I’ve been considering for some time. Take the Ten Commandments, for example – they’re good laws for everyone, assuming you ignore the religious crap. “Don’t commit murder,” “Don’t steal,” “Don’t desire the possessions of others,” and “Don’t lie about others,” are all good rules that almost every society agrees are good. Jesus said that the whole of the law can be summed up as “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Honestly, if we treat others as we would like to be treated, doesn’t society grow and flourish? If we try to help those in need and refuse to cause anyone harm, doesn’t that benefit everyone?
Plane: But what about the other rules in the Bible? Their book says to kill homosexuals and witches, not eat pork, and destroy any city that doesn’t worship their god!
Atheomoros: Christians I’ve met say that those laws apply to the Jews in their own country, not to Christians. Sure, they still ban homosexuality and sleeping around, but if you think about it from a societal standpoint both of those things sort of make sense. You don’t want most of your population being gay, because then you don’t have enough children to carry on your work and keep your country working. You also don’t want to encourage fornicating, because that just makes sex about pleasure and not about reproduction, which seems to mess with most peoples’ heads at some point or another. God, just look at those weird pick up artists and guys like Elliot Roger and you see where too much of that sort of thing gets you.
As for banning other religions, doesn’t that make sense for a society? If everyone shares a single moral and religious code, there is no conflict between religions. You’re either doing what society demands, or you’re not – there is only one standard. Other than that, you’re entirely free to do what you want so long as you’re being good to others. Paul the apostle says that “all things are permissible, but not all things are expedient,” meaning that you still have freedom to make choices inside the context of the rules but you need to think about whether it’s ultimately a good idea or not.
Misotheos: So, what, you’re saying you believe that religious mumbo-jumbo? You think there’s really a magic sky wizard up there somewhere that gives a crap about what we do?
Atheomoros: Not at all. I’m saying that the moral code of Christianity is consistent with freedom, societal good, and individual good. We all agree that these three criteria are absolutely essential for any code of morality, do we not? Our ancestors used this code to create America, after all – all their Renaissance ideals are based out of this code and the philosophy built up around it. Under this code, the whole country was brought from uncharted wilderness to a technological superpower home to many of the greatest inventions of all time. Of course, I’m not excusing the atrocities self-proclaimed Christians have committed over the ages, but if you look at the code these atrocities are actually violations of the principles rather than enforcement of them.
Plane: So you favor a theocracy, then?
Atheomoros: Again, no. Governing powers of all sorts breed corruption, whether they are religious or not. The whole history of the Papacy in Europe, the various “divine rulers” over the ages, and even our own government attests to this fact. No, I don’t like the idea of an all-powerful religious state, but rather a society in which all the members generally ascribe to a code like that found in Christianity. Such a society would necessarily try to appoint leaders that ascribe to the code and punish those who violate it, and in so doing the laws don’t need to be so strict nor so numerous as they are today. You don’t actually have to believe in the Christian religion to adhere to such a code, which means you can worship whatever invisible power you want so long as you outwardly obey the moral principles of the society.
Furthermore, if we have a single established moral code, we are less susceptible to the whims of the people.