On Friday I wrote about the conflict between atheists and believers, specifically about how the accusation that believers are stupid needs to stop. Today I’m going to talk about the ad hominem attacks most often leveled at atheists. Believers often claim that a life without God or some other great spiritual power is ultimately a life without meaning or morality. This, however, is blatantly untrue.
There’s no question that religious systems are also often moral systems. They set down expected standards of behavior as well as systems of consequences for behavior that abides by or deviates from those expectations. Atheism is often criticized for condoning immoral behavior because atheists have no spiritual values, and no ultimate spiritual authority to punish or reward the following or abandonment of these values. But robust moral systems can be built on completely secular bases. Kant’s theory of respect for other humans as rational beings or Milton’s philosophy of maximizing the total well-being of the world come to mind. We also don’t need to conceive of an ultimate spiritual authority to keep us in line. Society will punish us for our misdeeds often enough, and even in private we judge ourselves, evaluating our own actions and punishing or rewarding ourselves without the need for any divine interventions. God can help us be moral, yes, but we don’t need him in order to be so.
Another common critique of atheism is that lives without spirituality are ultimately meaningless ones. With no system of reward and punishment, the argument goes, everything we do becomes meaningless after we die, and thus our lives themselves are meaningless. However, this argument ignores two things. First off, our actions don’t die with us. We leave our legacy in the effects we have on others, the way our actions are remembered and inspire those who come after us. Long after we pass away, we live on in the memories of those we influenced. Even if our lives became absolutely irrelevant the moment we died, there would still be meaning in them. There is meaning in living your life the best you can, meaning in doing good by others, meaning in doing good by yourself, even if we never get rewarded for it. There is meaning in this life, no matter what comes after.
In short, we don’t actually need to look to the spiritual to find meaning in life. We simply have to look around us. We can find meaning in the eyes of our loved ones, in the ways we can influence strangers lives for the better, and in our own work, passions, fears, and dreams. Things in this world matter to us, and in this world we have the chance to truly effect those things. What could be more meaningful than that?