4 Questions For An Atheist
Later this week I have been asked by Deakin University to sit for an interview for them to use as content for their “World Religions” course. During the interview I will be asked 4 questions, and if my answers are any good, my words will be used as a voice for atheism in the course itself. Quite a daunting task, and since my voice will be used as representation of atheism and atheists in the world at large, I thought it might be a good idea to run my answers by the readers of my blog before deciding what I will say in this interview.
The questions they will ask me are:
Is there a God?
What is the purpose of human life?
What are the qualities of a good person?
How do we cultivate these qualities?
Simple right? Anyway, below are my thoughts on how I might go about answering. Please leave your thoughts in the comments if you have something to add or think my answers aren’t as good as they could be.
1. Is there a God?
The only answer I can give to this, and be totally honest, is “Maybe”. It’s not a small question, and needs qualification before any worthwhile answer can be given. First we must ask “What is your definition of God?” Remember there are many different ideas about who or what god is or isn’t, and it is important to know these definitions to effectively answer the question. And in doing so, an evidence-based approach is the best way to deduce that answer.
If the definition of god is an omnipotent, omniscient, all-powerful creator-god, anthropomorphised into a white-bearded male who answers the prayers of the faithful, then the answer is almost certainly “no”. There’s simply no evidence to even suggest that such a creature or creator exists, and yet this or similar is the most common incarnation of god that people choose to imagine.
If the definition is an interventionist god, one that is individually interested in the well-being of every human, then the answer is, again, almost certainly “no”. The inconsistencies of who that god chooses to “bless”, and who that god chooses to “shun” is far too arbitrary and random for that god to exist. How could a god that lets semi-faithful people win a sport-game be the same that lets an extremely pious child in Africa contract the Ebola virus? It makes no sense whatsoever.
As for the multifaceted gods of polytheistic religions such as Hindu, where each god is allocated for a certain natural or physical phenomenon, the answer is definitely “no”. And yet a person who is Hindu sees these gods with as much efficacy as does a Christian or Muslim of the monotheistic religions.
The idea of god is so subjective to each person, and the god that person believes in invariably stands for the same thing as the believer in question. It is far more likely (though still not very likely) that a creator god created the universe and then disappeared. Or that god *is* the universe. Or that god is an idea, an alogarithm or complex equation. Unfortunately humans are far too narcissistic and self obsessed that any god they choose to imagine will be more like themselves than a creator of the universe.
Again, in short, “Probably not, and if one does exist it would most-likely be beyond our comprehension.”
2. What is the purpose of human life?
There’s no purpose to human life, or should I say, there’s no innate purpose to human life, any more than there’s an innate purpose to any life. That’s not to say people can’t lead purposeful lives. A sense of life’s purpose is anything we choose to make so, not some divinely-endowed end-game we are working toward.
Think about it: we are related by our DNA to every living creature on this planet. We have evolved to our current state over a space of millions of years, as has every other creature on earth. The human species is not some kind of “final state” that evolution has been working toward, in fact humans are no “more evolved” than the common house-fly. We all came from the same initial state billions of years ago, and evolved in our own separate directions. The tendency to think of living a life which has an innate purpose is closely linked to a sense that humans are somehow special among the animal kingdom, that we among the animals are the only owners of a soul or a purpose.
We give ourselves a sense of purpose. For some it’s looking after their children. For others it’s fighting for freedom and equality. For some it might be raising money for charity, spreading the gospel, or rallying against climate change policies. We choose our purposes, they aren’t chosen for us.
When it comes down to it, the only innate purpose for human existence is to perpetuate the species, to replicate our genes. And without sounding like I’m advocating a teleological natural world, everything else is there to try to aid that.
3. What are the qualities of a good person?
This is a judgement call, and is also very subjective. I think personally a good person does whatever it takes to make the world a better place. I go by the doctrine of methodological humanism, which means advocating whatever it is that makes humanity thrive, not only on a personal level, not only on a community or society level, but as a species. I think what that means is doing no harm if possible, and at a very minimum, intending no harm. This includes needless harm to animals, plants, ecosystems, and of course, other people. That’s the highest level of what I think can be judged “good”.
Of course every society has a different idea of “good”. Some think a good woman is one who forsakes her own needs in favour of doting after the every want of her husband. Some think a good man is one who is ready and willing to die for their country. Of course, in each of these examples there is a possibility for harm. Many ideas of “good” in some societies will not wash against the standards of another.
I can’t tell people what to do, I can only go by what I see as important, so with that in mind. I think “do no harm” is a good starting point to being a good person.
4. How do we cultivate these qualities?
I think a big part of cultivating these qualities is respect and empathy. Respect is what allows us to get along as a species. Shared respect, where each of us holds the other with a sense of respect, mutual respect for others. This is where empathy comes into the picture. If we have empathy and respect, thinking about how others may feel from our actions, we’ll tend to not do horrible things to one another.
Religions didn’t get it all wrong. the idea of “loving thy neighbour as thyself” is a strong way for humanity to move forward. And we need to lead by example; We can’t teach peace, then advocate death-penalty or war in the Middle-East. We can’t teach gender equality, then advocate shaming of rape victims. We need to look at our shared social contract and identify what is ultimately harmful, and what is ultimately helpful.
And all this starts by teaching respect for others at a young level, and rewarding behaviours that help rather than hinder this goal.
OK I think that’s pretty good for now. If you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments below. Thanks for taking the time to read this.