Sunday, March 19, 2006

Restoring the dignity of atheism

Slavoj Zizek wrote an insightful essay for the International Herald Tribune on Tuesday. Atheism is a legacy worth fighting for is a compelling argument for the celebration of atheism as an ideal under which all religions can flourish. Zizek touches on a truism with this statement:
When I do a good dead, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God’s favor: I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror.
When religious people ask me the “how do you live without morals” question. I laugh to myself. Because, much like Zizek, I know the right thing to do when presented with an ethical dilemma. The most compelling argument Zizek makes is along this line. The right thing to do – is to adopt the relativist stance of multiple “regimes of truth”. All religions are free to worship in their own way as long as their own way is not imposed as the absolute truth on others. Atheism is in the best position to mead out fairness.

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michele said...

"I know the right thing to do when presented with an ethical dilemma."

But how do you know? And I'm really interested in your answer, this is not meant as a challenge to your beliefs.

Mojoey said...

There is a difference between religion and ethics. Ethics is the science (study) of morality". In philosophy, ethical behavior is that which is "good" or "right." Since more philosophy is one of the four major subdivisions of philosophy, it predates the narrow Christian belief in biblical morality. Christians claim something that is not really theirs to claim. Moral behavior has been a part of mankind for as long as we’ve called ourselves mankind.

How do I know what is right or wrong – well sometimes I am guided by experience, sometimes I am guided by law, and sometimes I am guided by self interest. Let me give you an example. I know that hitting somebody is wrong because: I hit somebody once and it resulted in my getting into trouble. It also resulted in my getting physically hurt. These two factors are experience telling me hitting someone is bad. Law comes into play now that I am an adult because I know the hitting somebody can result in criminal charges and the eventual denial of my freedom, and it can result in civil action and the loss of my hard earned wealth. So Law is an important force in deciding what is right or wrong. But then there is self interest. As an actor in my own life, I choose to do things that will benefit my life in both the short and long run. If confronted with a desire to hit a person, I would know that doing so may satisfy a short term desire but in the long run it will have negative overall impact to my life and the life of the person I hit (or did not hit). I am interested in a long happy life, so my moral choices lead me towards supporting this idea. It is not hard to ask yourself, is yelling at my wife or son a good or a bad act – and then finding the answer to be “bad” for all the reasons (and more) listed above. The one thing I can be sure of is that I did not make a decision “because the bible told me so”.

I know one or two of my friends are going to eat me alive on this issue – one believes in “moral beauty” as a definition for what I am describing here in lieu of a belief in God. The other friend believes in the nebulous “good” as a metaphysical concept, it is not quite God, but approaches the same idea.

Fire away

Atul said...

One can easily have morality without religion. The funny thing is that much of the universally shared morality comes from religion. There are a lot of "religious" people who have poor morals, (like televangelists who cheat people out of money in the name of God). I always say that some people need religion to be good people, others don't. Although I respect atheism, I am not an atheist. I'm a Hindu, probably mostly because I was raised as one, but it does fit my belief structure better than the other religions, (which I have studied). I think this universe is just too amazing and well thought out to be a random occurrence. There has to be a higher power at work here. What I like about Hinduism is that it is not very prescriptive and allows for a broad range of beliefs. Plus we don't try to convert people.

michele said...

So, in other words your system of morality is based on self interest? That's very honest of you :-).

michele said...

Atul, why is sharing what you believe with others wrong? Especially if you believe that apart from Christ unbelievers are going to spend all eternity suffering the wrath of God. If you think Hinduism is superior to Christianity and is true, then why not share that belief with Christians so that they stop wasting their time with a falsehood. That's what atheists do.

Mojoey said...

Michele - Existentialism - philosophical movement centered on individual existence: a philosophical movement begun in the 19th century that denies that the universe has any intrinsic meaning or purpose.
It requires people to take responsibility for their own actions and shape their own destinies.

I have been an existentialist for a very long time. Self-interest is core to the concept. Of course, one must choose between being good or being evil (as well as fighting hopelessness and depression). A choose to be good and to fight my evil tendencies. It is very much like a Christian’s battle against sin. I don’t always do the right thing, but I sure try hard.

Atul said...


I don't mind sharing what I believe with others. But I don't force my beliefs on others, and I don't think they're damned to Hell for not being Hindu. Some people actually consider Christians to be Hindus because their beliefs don't really violate Hinduism, (although I think it's kind of a stretch).

My view on God is that He judges people based on what they do. One thing about Christianity that I don't understand is the concept of forgiveness. If people can be forgiven for anything they do, why not do whatever you want? In Hinduism (and Buddhism), karma pays you back for what you've done in the past, right or wrong. (As you can tell, I am not a "by-the-book" Hindu, more of a philosophical Hindu.)

If there really is one true religion and only one way to worship, then why has God allowed so many belief systems and religions (including Hinduism) to have come to existence before Christianity? This is counterproductive and something atheists could use to back their beliefs. I would think that if there was one true religion, God would have made it apparent from the day we developed intelligence as a species.

As a side note, you have to admit that Krishna sounds an awful lot like Christ. Between that and other coincidences, like stories in Hinduism about walking through water, very similar to the parting of the seas, it's easy to draw the conclusion that perhaps all religions were different interpretattions of the same divine events.

Ask yourself, "what is the purpose of religion?" We could all believe in a god and not worship, but as long as we all tried to be "good" people, I think any higher power would be pleased.

That leads me to point out one last thing about all religions that I find interesting. Why is it that they all require us to praise God, and repeat God's name? God is so great and doesn't have an ego, so why does He need to be praised? It doesn't make sense to me. As long as God is in my heart and I appreciate what He does and has done, He should be pleased.

michele said...

Yes, I'm familar with Existentialism :-). My husband was actually into it before he became a Christian. It always stuck me a very hard system to live by since you have no reason to be ethical or moral. My other problem with the system is that there is no ultimate sense of justice.

I guess you would say what you have already said that you are your own guide to what is ethical. Each of us living by our own standard. Each doing what is right in our own eye (this quote from the book of Judges).

BTW, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. You have been very patient.

I also wanted to mention that I like your pictures and I'll be back to see what's going on in the world of atheism :-)

michele said...

Atu, first, what does it matter whether someone believes that there is a heaven and hell and a God who will judge between the living and the dead. If I believe that, what's it to you? I'm not forcing you to believe that. We do not live in a time when the church can force anyone to convert as has happened in the past.

Secondly, I think you bring up a very good point about what is the purpose of religion. This goes to the heart of what is the difference between Christianity and every other religion. True, biblical Christianity is the only religion that understands that all of our rigtheous acts are filthy rags and worthy of judgment and that we can't be good enough to equal God's standard. We can compare ourselves to others and say, "Well at least I'm not as bad as Hilter or Stalin" but in the long run it is only comparing a grey shirt to a black one. None of us is pure enough for the rest to see how dirty they are. That is why Christ came to show us that we have fallen short of the glory of God. He was able to follow the law perfectly where we were not. He is the white shirt that all the greys and the blacks are compared to on judgment day.

I don't want this to be too long. So I won't address your other comments except to say that we need to ask ourselves why are we here and what does a holy God require of us? The answer for me as to why I'm here has been captured very nicely in the Westminster Larger Catechism. It asks, "What is the chief end of man" and the answer is "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Do we do that by following our own way or His?