Sitting recently, working on a paper about asymmetrical warfare during the French and Indian War, I was struck by the age-old question: Why do atheists/secularists/materialists do good? After all, the continued attack on what I will call “atheists” or “atheism”, rolling in many other philosophical, materialist ideals, for the sake of brevity, by theists, claiming that there can be no morals without God or gods is unwarranted. At least, as it’s presented by both sides. Atheists are entirely capable of doing good works, and I’m thankful, for with the growing prevalence of atheism among our youth, our country would quickly devolve into anarchy if atheists were incapable of eking out a drop of good each day. I don’t question whether atheists are capable of doing good: all the surveys show that, and, of course, I know atheists who do great good, and have done good for me personally. My curiosity is in the motivation behind these acts of kindness. Not that their motivations are questionable, as in conniving in some way, but that there exist these motivations at all.
In my research of the matter, I can find manifestos from both sides, theists and atheists, defending for their positions and against the others. What I find often on the theist side is incredulous head bobbing and shoulder shrugging; they suck their teeth and roll their eyes in disbelief that anyone could believe that doing good comes from any motivation other than the influential power of God. On the atheist side is scoffing and snickering with scrunched up noses, followed by outdated claims against theists and strawman arguments that never actually address the issue. Even heavy-hitting atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens recycle, on stage in front of hundreds, the same materials that have been refuted since, sometimes, the so-called “Dark Ages”. Many theists, on tv, do their cause no favors when they affirm that faith is merely believing in something with no scientific evidence.
When asked about motivation behind morality, an atheist might say, “Well, why do you need to be afraid of a god that will send you to hell in order to do good? I can do good without that fear, therefore isn’t atheistic morality superior?” It’s a sound argument, and may even be valid on the face, if we were to accept the premise, but does it answer the question, “What is the atheist motivation to do good?” Of course not. This is not an answer to the question, merely a character assassination attempt on those they disagree with. This response actually betrays a great deal about the nature of this particular brand of atheism, though. The emphasis here is on the consequences. If one accepts a god, or a personal being that created and implemented a set of moral rules for people to follow, then they must also accept the consequences for breaking those rules. On the other hand, if there is no personal god, only people, then failing to do good has no consequences. Now, examining consequences, the atheist who does good, even though there are no negative consequences to doing the opposite, in a way, does outperform the theist motivated only by the negative consequences of not doing good. But, there is an assumption being made here that is not warranted for all theists: not all theists do good simply because they want to avoid being punished. The atheist argument also betrays another important thing about their line of thinking: it is not sophisticated. Actually, this kind of thinking is very childlike, which is probably why it is running rampant among children today. In a world of children, the child who can self-regulate like an adult is king, and with the extended infancy of 21st century adults, this seems plausible.
So, “morality” is a matter of evolved higher thinking among certain people, and those who are not evolved lack such a thing. I assume, then, that it is the evolved person’s responsibility to care for and educate those unevolved in these matters. Therefore, a theist who happens to believe in morality, apart from the punishing forces of their god, is simply an evolved person clinging to superstition. If we can just shed this archaic religion thing and let evolved people get on with it, then the world would be a better place, devoid of war, starvation, poverty, etc. Even if this is all true, it still doesn’t answer the question. What motivates the atheist to do good?
Some say that morality stems from survival and our evolved human nature. Great! Here is an actual answer. The American Atheists say on their website: “As human beings, we are social animals. Our sociality is the result of evolution, not choice. Natural selection has equipped us with nervous systems which are peculiarly sensitive to the emotional status of our fellows. Among our kind, emotions are contagious, and it is only the rare psychopathic mutants among us who can be happy in the midst of a sad society” (atheists.org). They go on to specify some biological processes that they hope backs all this up: “These two characteristics of our nervous system – emotional suggestibility and attachment imprintability – although they are the foundation of all altruistic behavior and art, are thoroughly compatible with the selfishness characteristic of all behaviors created by the process of natural selection. That is to say, to a large extent behaviors which satisfy ourselves will be found, simultaneously, to satisfy our fellows, and vice-versa” (atheist.org). Okay, that’s a lot to unpack, but boils down to one thing: even this explanation does not answer the question. Why? It sure seems to explain many aspects of human ethical behavior without the need of a god. The American Atheists even make the point that the Greeks developed complex ethics and virtues, and their gods were often psychopaths. Doesn’t this prove that a god is unnecessary? Well, it explains the “how” in a rudimentary way, but offers no answer to motivation. Being genetically evolved to participate in social constructions is hypothetical, and even if this is how human beings operate, it still reinforces the idea that ethics are arbitrary. If morals or ethics are encoded by social and physical evolution, then those things can be changed at the whim of some “rare psychopathic mutants”. What, then, keeps human beings wholesale off the terrorist bandwagon? What keeps human beings firmly against concentration camp culture, human trafficking or recreational murder? According to the American Atheists, it’s the thin veil of genetic mutation. We are slaves to our own biology, and creativity in art, literature, poetry, theatre, movies, music and all other pursuits are nice little trivialities, mere biproducts of natural selection. It doesn’t feel that way, though, does it?
The feeling that this idea is all wrong is a good one. We have evolved the ability to detect when something might not be good for us, and, where in some cases this is an instinct to be avoided, such as when getting a fight or flight reaction before a spelling bee, which is not helpful, it remains an instinct that should be cultivated in many instances. When walking through a dark parking garage alone, these instincts can alert us of danger. When on a battlefield, this “sixth sense” can alert us to an attack. Yes, this is an evolved skill, and the American Atheists are probably close in many of their hypotheses. We are creatures, created and subject to the created rules of nature. But, with a developed sense, there is a great unease brought about when dealing with human interactions and creations in such a flippant way. This form of atheist thought betrays another thing: their own worship of the created world. That is, the processes of creation. To these fundamentalists, art is not art, not an outpouring of the human heart, because there is no such thing. The heart pumps blood for the circulatory system. Our experiences end at biological processes, and therefore, since we are only biological processes, anything that we create from our own experience can contain no fundamental truths, merely personal truths, which are nothing more than chemicals and electrical impulses. In other words: human beings are no more or less than other material things. Now, we are back to the original question: “What motivates an atheist to do good?” It can’t be a mere biological process, because those are arbitrarily developed by random natural forces. What is defined as “good” can be changed, so what is the drive to care for others without personal gain? If this becomes inconvenient, just change it. Had Hitler had his way, he may have changed “good” to mean a world devoid of Jews, where torture and murder of certain people was “good”. We fought hard against this, at great personal and national cost, beyond biological processes. The Saints deprived themselves of material things for the sake of others, and this hasn’t a thing to do with logical biological processes. Art, poetry, literature betray truths that transcend our physical experience: and these have nothing to do with biological processes. If a human is nothing more or less than a speck of dirt, then there is no moral imperative to protect them. This leads to my final thought: if ethics and morals are naturally evolved and imperative to survival, what is the motivation behind human selfishness? If it is a biological imperative to be moral, why does being immoral continue to prevail on the world stage? It’s not just a personal problem, it is a global problem. What is the biological motivation behind sin?