Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Atheist Morality

I was reading an article in Harper's about the quest by atheist thinkers to reframe morality in a secular, rather than a religious, context. In other words, as the article asks, "Granting that there is no God, what now?"

You know how I feel about existential philosophy. It's needless agonizing over pointless, unanswerable questions. I've never understood people who ask, "Why are we here?" The fact is, we are here, and there doesn't need to be a reason.

In fact, I think our existence arose purely accidentally -- through chemical combinations and subsequent evolution governed by the powers of physics, chemistry and biology. I think I'm incredibly lucky to be writing this sentence.

(I was amused by another recent article about an Italian town that appointed a municipal philosopher. In this era of austerity measures and government cutbacks, how was that post approved?!)

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for some philosophy, though, I found the Harper's article interesting -- perhaps because it wrestled with more pertinent questions about how to live, rather than why we're living. Author Christopher R. Beha reviewed three books -- by Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris and Alain de Botton -- exploring the motivation for and construction of morality without religion.

Obviously our religions dictate much of our moral code, but I don't see humanity descending into an immoral lawlessness without religion. So much of morality also seems like common sense. Don't we have an internal guide that tells us not to needlessly harm each other, not to inflict unnecessary pain, not to steal or kill? Obviously people do those things, but I think they first have to overcome their own natural instincts not to. They have to become incredibly deluded by anger, greed or ignorance.

Buddhism -- a philosophy or a religion, depending on who you ask -- teaches that we're all Buddhas. We just have to recognize and cultivate our Buddhahood through practice. (That may seem like a somewhat religious approach, but technically Buddhism doesn't preach the existence of an external God. Can you be an atheist and a Buddhist? I'm not sure.)

Anyway, food for thought.

On a completely separate note, I took the photo above while in Kent. Can you tell what it is?


Linda Sue said...

The Thinking Atheist is one of my faves on FB. Rational and wise, in the midst of the crazy religious right that seems to have hy-jacked this nation. When we come to grips with intelligence and abolish religion as a guiding of contrived rules, education, maths and science are key. Art and music- a given.
Buddhism is Ok, in that they leave you alone and have compassion that no other religion has.Not all buddhists, however, are compassionate... just people trying to find more to this life than is. We are biological mistakes, I reckon. No reason to be jerks about it, we just are and it just is and when we die we are dead.. Love Sam Harris's series online "grooveshark" can get you there.
Your photo is clearly a shark who swallowed a lantern.

Lynne said...

I was trying to figure out that photo from the get-go. But I must admit I have no clue. Something with fire or flame in it? Is it oriented the right way or did you rotate it on its side? Still puzzled ...

Here where we live in NJ it's very Italian, so therefore VERY Catholic. I was brought up Catholic but the minute I left my parent's house that was that. I washed my hands of the whole thing! Now? Nothing!

It's not uncommon to see a nun in our grocery store in her habit and stout shoes. Weird.

Elizabeth said...

I have no idea what that photo is. The spear that those guards hold at the Queen's house?

As for Buddhism, sometimes I think it's the only way to think and not go insane.

Lorianne said...

The photo looks like an off-kilter shot of curtains in a dark room. The shards of light on the right are light on the ceiling, trickling over the top and through the "seam" of the closed curtains.

(So I guess the shot is both upside down and cockeyed. Shot while lying on a hotel bed, perhaps?)

Steve Reed said...

Lorianne, you are spot-on. I was lying in bed looking up at the ceiling of my dark room, where the streetlight was coming in over the top of the curtains. Good call!

Lynne said...

Good on Lorianne! At least I kind of sort of had the orientation part right! ;) Tricky photo!

Lorianne said...

Clearly that's a photo only another shadow-obsessed, off-kilter photographer could recognize. :-)

The Bug said...

I'm glad Lorraine guessed - I was going cross-eyed!

ellen abbott said...

I'm not an atheist exactly but I don't believe in religion, any religion. And I get really offended when religion claims the moral high ground, that it if weren't for religion and god we would revert to animals. but ya know, animals have more decency than many humans. I don't think we need a god to tell us that murder is wrong, that theft brings discord to society, that it is a good thing to care for the less fortunate. I think we know these things innately.