If you don't believe in God, what's left?
Most people think of atheism as one big negative. But there is much more to atheism than knockdown arguments that there is no God.There is the whole rest of the worldview that comes along with atheism.
So why aren’t scientists more up-front about these answers that we can read right off of science? Mainly because the answers are bad PR for science in a nation of churchgoers.
Here is a list of most of these questions and their short answers. Given what we know, they are all pretty obvious. The interesting thing is to recognize how totally unavoidable these answers really are. The book explains them in more detail.
Is there a God?
What is the nature of reality?
What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe?
There is none.
What is the meaning of life?
Why am I here?
Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work?
Of course not.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal?
Are you kidding?
Is there free will?
Not a chance!
What happens when we die?
Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?
There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral?
Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory?
What is love, and how can I find it?
Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
Does history have any meaning or purpose?
It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
Does the human past have any lessons for our future?
Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.
After all, the trouble most people have with atheism is that if they really thought there were no God, human life would lose its value. They wouldn’t have much reason to go on living, and even less reason to be decent people. The questions theists always ask atheists are these two: In a world you think is devoid of purpose, why do you bother getting up in the morning? And in such a world, what stops you from cutting all the moral corners you can?
Religious people especially argue that atheists cannot really have any values—things we stand up for just because they are right—and that we are not to be trusted to be good when we can get away with something. They complain that our worldview has no moral compass. These charges get redoubled once theists see how big a role Darwinian natural selection plays in science’s view of reality. Many of the most vocal people who have taken sides against this scientific theory have frankly done so because they think it’s morally dangerous, not because it lacks evidence. If Darwinism is true, then anything goes! “Anything goes” is nihilism, and nihilism has a bad name.
As the chapters about ethics suggest, there is good news and bad news. The bad news first: We need to face the fact that nihilism is true: science can’t justify the core morality that almost all of us accept. And any other supposed justification would conflict with science. So, if we are going to be really consistent, nihilism is the only option.
I hope and I also believe that nice nihilism is enough to forestall atheists’ worries. Because when it comes to morality, it’s all we’ve got.
The most important thing to know about reality is that science understands it well enough to rule out god, and almost everything else that provides wiggle room for theism and mystery mongering. That includes all kinds of purposes, including even ones that conscious introspection suggests we ourselves have. Conscious introspection was shaped by natural selection into tricking us about the nature of reality.
For reasons just mentioned, we were shaped to be suckers for a good story, a narrative with a plot driven by motives—peoples’, god’s, nature’s. By making us think that our own behaviour is directly understandable to us as the product of our (usually conscious) will, introspection effectively prevents us from discovering its true sources in non-conscious brain processes.
To use some philosophical jargon, I am an eliminativist about the propositional attitudes. That is, I believe that the brain acquires, stores, and uses information, but that it does not do so in the form of sentences, statements or propositions. The illusion that it does so is another one of those mistakes foisted on us by conscious awareness.
Nihilism—even my “nice nihilism” is a public relations nightmare. Most of my fellow travellers think that if the scientific worldview saps morality of its truth, correctness, justification, then there is no chance it will be widely adopted and every chance the scientific worldview will be marginalized, to the obvious detriment of human welfare. They might be right. It’s an empirical matter.
The four most difficult chapters of The Atheist’s Guide are devoted to this task, and most reviewers have avoided even discussing them. They are too hard for people who have never heard of the problem of intentionality or content or ‘aboutness.’ Once we take on board eliminativism about content, and Darwinism about every other instance of apparent purposiveness in the universe and in our brains, it’s easy to see that what consciousness tells us about ourselves, our motives, our plans, our purposes, is a tissue of illusions. This, not morality, is the part of our understanding of ourselves that requires radical reconstruction, at least for scientific purposes, if not for everyday life.