If There is No Supernatural, How do Atheists Define Good and Evil?

Image result for image of do unto others

Conservative Christian:  If there is no supernatural, how do you define good and evil? If there is nothing beyond this material world of space and time and physics, what are we? Surely the logic which rejects the supernatural reduces us to curious assemblages of complex molecules, ‘living’ on a small rock circling an unremarkable star in the unfashionable western spiral arm of one galaxy in 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the observable universe. You and I, Gary, if you are right, have no value, meaning or significance, for these must come from outside ourselves. Any self-constructed meaning is no better that the ‘superstitous’ beliefs which you condemn.

 

Gary:   You seem to be suggesting that unless I can come up with a better answer for the origin of morality and the purpose of the universe, you win and I lose. But we are not in a contest regarding who can come up with the prettiest, most comforting explanation for all the mysteries of the universe. I for one, search for the truth. And what if the truth is that: The supernatural does not exist; there is no such thing as universal, objective morality; and there is no purpose to the universe. It simply exists.

You might find that ugly and scary but if that is what the truth is, your feelings on the subject are irrelevant. The reason why I don’t believe in the supernatural is not because I don’t like it, it is because there is no good evidence for it.

A recent study found that 40% of Americans under the age of 30 now identify as “non-religious”. Imagine what the numbers are like in Europe! I believe that within not too many generations, belief in gods and devils (at least in the educated West) will be seen as just as silly as belief in witches and goblins.

So how do I define “good”:  I should treat others in the manner that I want them to treat me.  Sound familiar, Christians?  Yes, Jesus said that.  He wasn’t the first to formulate that “moral lesson”, but it is a good one.  But “do unto others as you would have them do to you ” because it is in your best survival interest (and will make you feel good), not because a god tells you to do it…or else!

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38 thoughts on “If There is No Supernatural, How do Atheists Define Good and Evil?

  1. Gary, you have it: “And what if the truth is that: The supernatural does not exist; there is no such thing as universal, objective morality; and there is no purpose to the universe. It simply exists.”
    This is what humans are unable to accept. We humans made up the supernatural to explain what we didn’t know or cannot know. We have fooled ourselves from the very beginning! It is okay, I suppose, to believe in the supernatural so long as one realizes that it is only a mental construct. The ramifications of this delusion is that some, maybe as high as 50%, believe this portends the end of the world. GROG

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  2. First and foremost, I define “good” and “evil” as adjectives, not nouns. They aren’t “things” and certainly not “beings”. They are qualities we ascribe to events and other things, describing how those things affect our own wellbeing, the wellbeing of those close to us, and the wellbeing of humanity in general.

    “You and I, Gary, if you are right, have no value, meaning or significance, for these must come from outside ourselves.”
    And that’s huge piece of nonsense right there, an assertion with no basis. Who says they “must come from outside”? A self-appointed spokesman for a fictional boogeyman? Value, meaning, and significance are things that we create for ourselves, not something to be imposed on us from outside. And that’s a “good” thing! 🙂

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  3. Gary, I think there are several problems with your response.

    – I don’t think the challenge in front of you is to come up with a “prettier standard”. Of course I agree with you that a person’s like, or dislike, of a proposition has no bearing on its truth. Rather, I think the issue that you’re faced with is this; if there is no transcendent moral standard, then it clearly follows that there are no objective moral values. That is, you cannot logically claim, simultaneously, that objective good and evil exist but a standard beyond human opinion does not.

    Now you might say (as you suggest) “fine, good and evil do not exist” and wanting it to be so doesn’t help us find the truth. I agree. However, I don’t think you have clearly thought thru the implications of this because later in this very entry you say the following:

    “He wasn’t the first to formulate that “moral lesson”, but it is a good one.” What do you mean by ‘good one’!? What basis do you have for saying that?

    “But “do unto others as you would have them do to you ” because it is in your best survival interest” Implicit in this statement is that survival is an objective good! What makes survival a good thing? Why aren’t the radical environmentalists right that voluntary extinction would be the greatest “good” that human beings could pursue? Once again, you’re appealing to a standard that you have denied the existence of.

    “(and will make you feel good), not because a god tells you to do it…or else!” Here again, you assume objective value in ‘feeling good’. Worse you then say that a person OUGHT to be good. And that they OUGHT to do it for one reason over another reason. All of these are value judgments for which atheism has absolutely no basis.

    You can’t have it both ways; to claim that something is truly good or evil is to claim that a transcendent moral standard exists (theism). If, on the other hand, you deny the objectivity of morality, you cannot logically claim that certain things are truly wrong.

    – You say the universe “simply exists”. Why do you believe this? This is a positive claim about the nature of reality and, therefore, needs to be defended. Perhaps I am late to the party, but I haven’t seen an explanation as to why you would hold this belief.

    – I would be interested to hear your response to the questioners comments about the implications of a materialist worldview. It looks to me like he is saying that: if there are no metaphysical or immaterial properties present in the universe, then we are fully material and, therefore, fully determined. I.E. you are not capable of “searching for truth”, as you put it. Rather, you only give the appearance of reasoning because your thoughts can be reduced to chemical processes in your brain which are governed by the laws of physics. It follows that your consciousness is an illusion. But if this were true, there would be no way to know it! Therefore, the position that only material exists, defeats itself.

    How would you respond to this?

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    1. “That is, you cannot logically claim, simultaneously, that objective good and evil exist but a standard beyond human opinion does not.”

      You are correct, Taylor. I do not believe that there is any standard of morality beyond human opinion. The “herd” sets the rules (moral standards of behavior) for humans, just as it does for almost every other species of mammal on the planet.

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      1. Ah, ok. I appreciate that. That is one position to take. I don’t think it is necessarily incoherent, but I do think it is unlivable in practice because it has absurd consequences.

        The belief that objective morality is illusory entails that the Nazis, for example, really didn’t do anything wrong by exterminating over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. After all, this was within the group morality of their herd. It seems to me that this is more than just distasteful.
        “The ‘herd’ sets the rules” – Ok, but if I act contrary to the Herd Rule, have I done something wrong, or just unfashionable? The herd rule only describes what most people prefer, but we’ve already established that there is no ontological anchor for it… So people who are disobedient to the herd rule are not wrong and cannot logically be condemned as such.

        Perhaps these are just hard truths of reality, but if this is your position, you should be prepared to live consistently by it… But value statements permeate your blog! This is inconsistent.

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        1. “The belief that objective morality is illusory entails that the Nazis, for example, really didn’t do anything wrong by exterminating over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.”

          False. Prior to WWII, Germany had signed treaties in which it agreed to certain “rules of war”. Germany violated those rules. So who was the “herd” in this situation? Answer: the combined nations of the world who had signed this treaty (Geneva Convention). The actions of Germany against the Jews, the Russians, gay people, and millions of others were violations of the rules of Germany’s herd: the nations of the world.

          So the actions of the Nazis were wrong not because they violated the rules of Yahweh, Allah, or Zeus, but because Germany’ herd (the world community) said they were wrong.

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          1. But why is the herd morality “objective”?! And obviously they didn’t view forced consent to a treaty as binding on them… Why are they wrong? Why is it wrong to lie?

            The herd morality varies from culture to culture… If this is your “objective” standard, it would mean that slavery in the United States was morally acceptable until such a time that the majority of the herd changed their minds… So has slavery always been wrong, or did it just become wrong when the herd decided it was wrong?

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            1. “But why is the herd morality “objective”?!”

              Where did I ever describe herd morality as objective??? Herd morality is ALWAYS subjective. The herd’s morality is dependent upon the circumstances in which the herd finds itself. Therefore, it is subjective.

              “So has slavery always been wrong, or did it just become wrong when the herd decided it was wrong?”

              By the standards of western culture today, slavery has always been wrong. But while we are on the subject of slavery: Why did your god condone it in the OT but yet most Christians today consider it immoral??? You see, my friend, Christians do not have an objective moral standard either. Morality changes with time and circumstances, in all societies, even in Hebrew/Jewish and Christian societies.

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              1. Alright, so the short answer is yes – slavery was “right” within the culture who approved of it, but now it is wrong. I think this is a stunning admission with some absurd and unlivable consequences, but I will try to circle back to that later…

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        2. “The ‘herd’ sets the rules” – Ok, but if I act contrary to the Herd Rule, have I done something wrong, or just unfashionable? The herd rule only describes what most people prefer, but we’ve already established that there is no ontological anchor for it… So people who are disobedient to the herd rule are not wrong and cannot logically be condemned as such.”

          If you steal a car and the police catch you, you are not charged with a “moral violation” but with a “crime”. You are charged with a crime because you broke the herd’s rules regarding property. When it comes to the law (the rules of the herd), it is not a question of morality, only rule breaking.

          A preference is very different from a law. It might be the preference of the majority of the herd that you say “please” when you ask someone for something. You can either follow that preference or not. However, it is not a preference but a law (rule) that you not steal someone else’s car. If you violate a rule/law, you are disciplined by the herd.

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        3. “Perhaps these are just hard truths of reality, but if this is your position, you should be prepared to live consistently by it… But value statements permeate your blog! This is inconsistent.”

          I am not just an atheist but a secular humanist atheist. I would encourage you to read about secular humanism and our values.

          https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/

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    2. ” “He wasn’t the first to formulate that “moral lesson”, but it is a good one.” What do you mean by ‘good one’!? What basis do you have for saying that?”

      I am not just an atheist (which only means I do not believe in the existence of gods), I am a secular humanist. Humanists believe that it is in each individual’s best interest to be altruistic (good) to others, because if everyone adopts this habit, it is more probable that other people will be altruistic to YOU when you need help. Being nice to others, in essence, provides survival benefits to you.

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      1. We have the same problem here as above.

        What do you mean by “best”? What do you mean by “good”? And why is it “good” for our species to survive?

        If good and evil, in the objective sense, are illusory, then it is not “good” to be altruistic… Sure, altruism may confer survival benefit to some, but if a member of the herd can get ahead by dominating others instead, why shouldn’t they do this?

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        1. Yes, one member of the herd can try to dominate everyone else;stealing their food; violating the females; killing the young of others—but eventually the “tyrant” gets overthrown; banished; or killed.

          My body, and that of every other living creature, desires to survive. Mammals have found that by working cooperatively with others of their species, the survival chances of each individual increases. Animals that display this behavior tend to pass on their genes. Animals that display selfish/non-altruistic behavior tend to be loners and are killed off or don’t find a mate to breed with. That is why one can find many altruistic individuals among apes, elephants, humans, etc.. It is in our genes as a survival instinct.

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    3. “You can’t have it both ways; to claim that something is truly good or evil is to claim that a transcendent moral standard exists (theism). If, on the other hand, you deny the objectivity of morality, you cannot logically claim that certain things are truly wrong.”

      I am defining “good” and “evil” by the standards of my herd (modern, western human culture). My herd defines what is beneficial (good) or neutral (tolerated without value judgment) for the herd and what is harmful (evil) for the herd.

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    4. “You say the universe “simply exists”. Why do you believe this?”

      What I believe I said is” “if the universe simply exists.” I do not pretend to know the origin or purpose of the universe.

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    5. “I would be interested to hear your response to the questioners comments about the implications of a materialist worldview. It looks to me like he is saying that: if there are no metaphysical or immaterial properties present in the universe, then we are fully material and, therefore, fully determined. I.E. you are not capable of “searching for truth”, as you put it. Rather, you only give the appearance of reasoning because your thoughts can be reduced to chemical processes in your brain which are governed by the laws of physics. It follows that your consciousness is an illusion. But if this were true, there would be no way to know it! Therefore, the position that only material exists, defeats itself.”

      You are thinking much too hard, Taylor. As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am (therefore I exist).”

      That is good enough for me. I do not see any compelling evidence which demonstrates that the only reason I think is because of an invisible superhero. All that really matters is that I DO think.

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      1. Eeek… I don’t think this position stands up to your ideal of “searching for truth”!

        I didn’t say that you have cognitive faculties because of an invisible superhero – But I do argue that, if they have no reason, they cannot be trusted. It seems to me that this is manifestly true.

        So we’re both left with explaining why we can reason at all. Trust that our senses accurately report the nature of reality cannot be justified by materialism.

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        1. I trust my ability to reason simply because my ability to make complex decisions (reasoning) has kept me alive and out of many dangerous situations. I trust my my brain’s capacity to reason based on extensive personal experience. I may not know why I am able to make complex decisions (reason)…I just know I can!

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          1. Hehe… This is rather incurious, isn’t it?

            Here’s the problem – If your atheist perspective is correct, you “mind” is your brain. There’s no immaterial component to Gary. But all material reality is governed by the laws of physics. It follows that, in fact, you are not reasoning at all. You only have the illusion of consciousness, rationality and free will. You don’t believe what you believe because it has “kept you alive and out of many dangerous situations”. You believe it because you are materially determined to believe it!

            This is the logical consequence of materialism.

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  4. The reason why I don’t believe in the supernatural [creating human morality] is not because I don’t like it, it is because there is no good evidence for it.

    However, there is certainly growing evidence that in hundreds of thousands of years of biology gradually came more and more sophisticated forms of human interaction and morality — that benefited the community/tribe then civilizations/cultures, and so on. Gary, you might find this excellent article worth reading a couple of times. From the renown Harvard Professor and Naturalist, and one of my favorite scholarly scientist, Dr. E.O. Wilson. Apologies for the length, but I find it a very important contribution to your blog-post and discussion Sir:

    CENTURIES of debate on the origin of ethics come down to this: Either ethical principles, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience, or they are human inventions. […]

    Every thoughtful person has an opinion on which premise is correct. But the split is not, as popularly supposed, between religious believers and secularists. It is between transcendentalists, who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind. In simplest terms, the options are as follows: I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not, and I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists.

    Dr. Wilson goes on to further distinguish and pare down the debate between Transcendentalism vs. Empiricism…

    Theologians and philosophers have almost always focused on transcendentalism as the means to validate ethics. […]

    Christian theologians, following Saint Thomas Aquinas’s reasoning in Summa Theologiae, by and large consider natural law to be an expression of God’s will. […]

    [Thomas Jefferson] In the Declaration of Independence he blended secular and religious presumptions in one transcendentalist sentence, thus deftly covering all bets: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” […]

    So compelling are such fruits of [Divine] natural-law theory, especially when the Deity is also invoked, that they may seem to place the transcendentalist assumption beyond question. But to its noble successes must be added appalling failures. […]

    The crux of the empiricist view is its emphasis on objective knowledge. Because the success of an ethical code depends on how wisely it interprets moral sentiments, those who frame one should know how the brain works, and how the mind develops. The success of ethics also depends on how accurately a society can predict the consequences of particular actions as opposed to others, especially in cases of moral ambiguity.

    Finally, in Wilson’s section A Hunger For Spirituality — where he really means profound human understanding of our place on Earth and the Cosmos and meaning/purpose in life — and after examining The Origin of Moral Instincts, A Scientific Approach to Moral Reasoning, The Origins of Religion, Ethics and Animal Life, and Theology Moves Toward Abstraction, he states:

    Human nature is biologically based, and it is relevant to ethics and religion. The evidence shows that because of its influence, people can readily be educated to only a narrow range of ethical precepts. They flourish within certain belief systems and wither in others. We need to know exactly why. […]

    Which world view prevails, religious transcendentalism or scientific empiricism, will make a great difference in the way humanity claims the future. While the matter is under advisement, an accommodation can be reached if the following overriding facts are realized. Ethics and religion are still too complex for present-day science to explain in depth. They are, however, far more a product of autonomous evolution than has hitherto been conceded by most theologians. Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility. Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge. That is the only way to provide compelling moral leadership. Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments.

    The eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself.

    Here is the link to Wilson’s article:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/04/the-biological-basis-of-morality/377087/

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      1. Hearing got back, pain in the esophagus and stomach instantly gone, a stroke patient who could not walk without steel aid instantly walked and shook our hands without any assistance from any human or steel aid, a pregnant woman for 5 months whose baby rarely does move instantly made vigorous movements and has been regularly moving thereafter, voice instantly recovered, and many others. Well I am not surprised, because Jehovah Rapha is God our Healer.

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        1. “stroke patient who could not walk without steel aid instantly walked and shook our hands without any assistance from any human or steel aid,”

          Did you know the person prior to the “healing”?

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          1. Of course. He was a close relative. Actually the examples are many. The blind saw and even a woman was miraculously healed from Stage 3 breast cancer – affirmed by 7 doctors who were all surprised by the result.

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            1. Tell me more about your close relative. How long prior to his healing had he been paralyzed? How badly was he paralyzed? Could he walk without assistance prior to his healing? Is he 100% back to normal even now?

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              1. He was paralyzed by at least five years. Prior to his healing he could walk very slowly using the steel aid, and walk a little better with an additional aid from humans. After the prayer he could walk far better and on his own, and admitted that his legs gained much strength. It was not a total 100%, but observing from the way he walked after the prayer his walk was nearly around 90% normal. The Lord took him a year later, after revealing to my dream that He would do so.

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                1. So he went from what percentage of normal to 90% of normal? For instance, was he 50% of normal after his stroke for five years and then 90% normal after his healing? How long did his improvement last?

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                2. I ask these questions because I am a doctor. If your relative had complete loss of use of his left arm and leg for five years, for instance, and then he regained 90% use after his “healing” that would truly be a miracle.

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              2. Well actually, healing is just one aspect to which God expresses Himself to us supernaturally. There are many others. Another one which He continuously let us experience is through visions. Most of the visions along with prophecies have already been fulfilled, and some visions were fulfilled in a matter of a few hours.

                God really is the God of miracles, and only Him could do that. I know that many Christians and Churches out there that regularly experience the supernatural in God.

                Especially among the persecuted Churches, the supernatural is quite rampant and evident. The book The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun is one good actual story of a man who have experienced the miraculous, including being alive during his 64 days of dry fasting (without any water or solid food or anything else).

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                1. While the supernatural is certainly possible, what is difficult is determining if a rare, odd event is truly a supernatural event or simply a rare, but odd natural event. Rare, odd things do happen to people of all religions and even to atheists. I think we need to see more evidence for your claim of a supernatural event.

                  What evidence is there to confirm that a man you read about in a book lived for 64 days without any food or water? Have you seen this evidence or are you simply taking “Brother Yun’s” word for it?

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