Taking Atheism Seriously

Let’s take it as given that Richard Dawkins is correct: God does not, and never has, existed.

With that being so, what necessarily follows about life, the universe and everything? This may seem to be a quite straightforward question to answer, but because religious beliefs have deeply infused our cultural understanding and practice for so long it is not always simple to appreciate what reality, minus the religious baggage, actually is.

Starting then with our origins: it is self-evident that if there is no God, or a similar entity, then no supernatural being created the universe or anything in it, including of course humanity. Physical matter – the natural world – is all that there is and this matter has either existed for all eternity or it has at some point spontaneously come into existence. Either way, matter just is.

Over time some relatively discreet clusters of “dead” matter developed a quality which we now refer to as being “alive.” Among other attributes, these entities had the ability to reproduce other very similar entities to themselves. Again, over time, an enormous diversity of increasingly complex living entities developed and some even became aware or conscious of the universe around them and of “themselves” as part of that universe.

For many people this is of course quite an uncontroversial explanation of our origins. The crucial point though that must be emphasised is that the appearance of life, reproductive ability, complexity, diversity, consciousness, intelligence, and so on, all happened by itself – automatically, or even accidentally, in a sense. Nobody, as the atheistic account requires, caused any of these things to take place. There was never any intention that planets, amoebas, and thinking human beings exist. Rather, something intrinsic to the very nature of mindless, unconscious matter gave rise inevitably yet unintentionally, to all of these things. Presumably, if the nature of matter had been even slightly different, life, if it had arisen at all, would have been quite different.

If that is a correct account of our beginnings, what of our future? It is not unusual for many people, perhaps most, to admit that they have a sense that life is moving, or should be moving, in a certain direction or towards some sort of goal. This may be just a general vague feeling or something quite specific, but nevertheless the sensation seems to be quite commonplace.

Yet, like the idea that the universe and humanity have been deliberately created, the notion that there is any particular ultimate destiny for the individual human being, or for humanity, or indeed for the universe, is completely false.

This is not to deny that individuals or groups of people do not manufacture their own goals or direction for life; of course they do. It is typical of religious beliefs, for example, that there be a heaven or nirvana awaiting the faithful one day. But according to an atheistic ontology these are merely vain imaginings. It may well be the case that the universe will one day collapse back into nothingness or that life may flourish on every planet, but whatever happens it will not be because of some great cosmic scheme. There is no such scheme, hence there can be no ultimate meaning, purpose or goal which anyone need strive towards or care about. In that sense no person can be a success or a failure. It simply does not matter to matter what happens.

This remains true not just in relation to the whole of life but also in regards to all the moral decisions made along the way. Nothing that a person or any other creature does is the right or the wrong thing to do in any given situation. This is so because there never is, within an atheistic framework, any such thing as the right or wrong thing to do.

I hasten to add that once again it is true that individuals and groups of people virtually always create some sort of system of morality and laws. When someone abides by these rules they are considered to be doing “right” and when they breach them they do “wrong”.

These moral and legal requirements however are brought into being by people to try and make life generally easier and less chaotic: they do not reflect any absolute requirements that are part of the nature of the universe itself. People may break laws and be said to act immorally but they cannot ever do anything that is ultimately wrong – not even Hitler. In the same sense, nobody is, and nobody does anything that is, good – not even Mandela.

Some people do take the plunge though and make the claim that the nature of matter is such that certain things are intrinsically right and wrong and therefore at least some moral values do apply absolutely to all people. It is very hard to make sense however of what it means to say that combinations of protons, electrons, etc, make a particular act “wrong”. Do sub-atomic particles have a moral sense?

Even if this extraordinary position is adopted it does not help. It is not as if matter generates the same moral sense among all people as would be expected if it was actually doing so – our numerous moral conflicts give the lie to that. But even if matter did have this remarkable ability, why should anyone care about and abide by moral feelings that happen to be thrown up by the impersonal, uncaring stuff of the universe?

It almost goes without saying that atheism rejects the notion that there is any form of ongoing existence following death. Because conscious life is totally identified with the physical body and in particular with the brain, once the body ceases to function and begins to break down, life and consciousness are permanently and irretrievably lost. This means there can be no final accounting for one’s life, which may be a big relief, but it also means that many who grossly breach man-made justice systems “get away with it”.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, atheism would suggest that we live in a totally deterministic universe. In the absence of any non-material beings all there is is matter and since matter operates mechanically that leaves no place for the actions of genuinely free agents. It is not only our actions, however, that are totally constrained by the laws of physics, so too are our words and even our thoughts. (So don’t blame me for writing this! But then again no one would be able to stop themselves anyway!)

This then is life as seen through an atheistic framework: my/your individual conscious life is something that has been thrown up, unintentionally but inevitably (given the initial conditions and the nature of matter) by the stuff of the universe. There is no purpose to this relatively brief, one-off existence and before departing to oblivion it would not be (ultimately) wrong to kill the last whale or indeed to push the button to initiate global nuclear war. Moreover, in the absence of any absolute moral values it is not possible to make moral progress or to even have any genuinely rational moral debate (or indeed rational debate on any other subject since we are unable to control what we think or say).

Philosopher Louis Pojman drew the conclusion in his book, Life and Death, that life is no more than being “in the middle of the ocean in a boat with numerous leaks in which our primary task (is) to bail out water so that we (can) simply stay afloat and sail in circles”. Rather a bleak outlook perhaps but (ignoring for the moment that the state of the physical universe may happen to preclude this from occurring) one would hope that atheists would have the courage to take a ruthlessly honest look at the reality of their own world view.