Resolving Meaning

The tradition of making New Year resolutions raises one of those theistic vs atheistic type questions, “Why do something rather than nothing?” Theists often say that if we are just going to have dirt thrown in our faces at the end, isn’t everything meaningless? They often argue that the afterlife (and god) makes everything meaningful. But I do not think that is true, I’ll just look at a couple of quick examples, as I know this is a subject I will come back to again and again.

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One way to find meaning in life

Does an afterlife itself make this life more meaningful? I say “no.” Here are just two of my reasons.

The existence of some kind of eternal afterlife makes this life just a mere prelude to what comes after. This doesn’t give meaning to our all too brief earthly existence, it takes it away. What could 80 years possibly mean compared to eternity? Not very much.

But, theists will argue, god rewards or punishes our actions in this life, so therefore they have eternal meaning. Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t really help anything.

At it’s purest, this means we live life poised on some kind of razor’s edge where every thought, every action could be the one that tips the balance in to heaven or hell. This does not give meaning — consequences, yes, meaning, no. It could be that one youthful indescretion seals your fate, a literal eye blink in eternity. That is not meaning, it is more a form of psycopathy.

Or it could be that one of the lesser versions of judgement holds true. Maybe Jesus did die for all of our sins, no judgement day at all. No meaning there. Or maybe we have to sweat out all our sins in the gigantic rehab in the sky, purgatory, and then off to heaven. Again, it doesn’t really make what you do here meaningful. Why not save a step and just send our souls straight to purgatory and then when “clean” enter into heaven. Who needs 80 years of making sure the rugs are vacuumed?

Well, at least religion tells us what do to, the theist will then argue. We know what kinds of resolutions to make.

But even that is not really true. Does god want us to be like the Taliban/ISIL and spend our time removing things from the world that displease him, everything from Buddhist statues to infidels to abortion doctors? Are we supposed to visit people in jail (as Jesus mentioned?)

Or are we supposed get rid of jails entirely? Sincere people of all kinds of religious stripes will argue for those things and many, many others. OK, it is now fair for you to ask what the secular answer to why to resolve to do something and what that should be.

Why should we do something rather than nothing? I think one thing that religious people and secular people can agree on is that we seem to have evolved (or been designed) to do things. We simply are not able to sit still for very long. It is even difficult for most people to practice endless hedonism. Eventually you get tired of eating, drinking and dancing and you want to do something. That is reason enough to something rather than nothing. But what do to?

Many people take the route of making a checklist: lose 10 pounds, read a book a month, build a gazebo and so on. Nothing wrong with those things. Do they bring meaning? Maybe. Certainly they can make like more enjoyable. Which is what I will suggest as a metric for deciding what to resolve. Make life more enjoyable for yourself, those closest to you and for larger society. With that in mind, here are some secular resolutions that can accomplish those goals.

Resolution 1: Become a better cook. Yes, you read that right. Better living through cooking. Better food is more enjoyable for you, the pleasure of a good meal is undeniable and very repeatable. Home cooking your meals will bring you closer to your loved ones, breaking bread together has been recognized for millennial as a way for people to truly bond. You will also be helping wider society by being healthier, supporting farmers and many other benefits.

Resolution 2: Become more musical. Music has been with us almost as long as food. Each new level of technology gives us more music, but also makes too many of us mere passive consumers. So, learn to play an instrument. Like cooking, you will find this bringing you closer to other people. You could even be the life of the party. Even if you can’t play an instrument, you can expand your musical horizons. You don’t have simply relive your musical adolescence over and over again. Try listening to a new genre of music. Give classical or jazz a chance. Listen to an independent community radio station. Hit “I feel lucky” on Google Play. Go listen to live music in your community. OK, yes it mostly takes place in bars late at night, but hearing real people play real music is worth it. Again, it will be enjoyable for you, those close to you and your wider community.
Resolution 3: Make contact. Make real contact with other people. Don’t just send a check for charity, volunteer. Don’t try to convert your rival, listen to them and understand them. Be wholely present with your loved ones. If more people made more real contact, the ripples will be felt throughout our communities.

I can guarantee you that these three things will make your life more enjoyable in a very real way. Your world and the rest of the world will be a bit better off. I am not sure if that is “meaning,” but it is a really good start.

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29 thoughts on “Resolving Meaning

  1. 1. Become a better cook. I’m a pretty good cook already. I can extend this, though, into “teach my daughters to be better cooks”. They could use more confidence in the kitchen.

    2. Become more musical. I think I’ve already got that one pretty well covered. My chorus rehearses every week, and gives at least four concerts a year. I don’t think I can step that one up much.

    3. Make contact – this one would be the best for me to work on. I’m trying to go to a couple of meetups every month. I’m not naturally very social, and I have to make myself go meet people, but I’m doing it!

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    • Making meaningful contact was a challenge for me, too, so I understand how hard it can be. I volunteered a lot but was way out of the loop of having a healthy relationship with a significant other. Meetups are a good place to mix and mingle without pressure. I met a wonderful man at a Meetup and I wasn’t even looking for someone to date – we’ve been together for 19 absolutely wonderful months. I never would have met him it I hadn’t actively tried to be more social.

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  2. Agellius says:

    I can’t speak for other people, but I don’t argue that our lives on earth have no meaning if there’s no eternal life. Obviously, as long as there is someone who can appreciate the meaning of what we do, whether ourselves or someone else, then what we do has meaning. But that’s just it: The meanings of our lives can’t outlast our own lives and the lives of those who know us. Once we’re all dead and gone, the meaning is also dead and gone. And once the earth has crashed into the Sun and been burned to a cinder (or whatever is supposed to happen to the earth eventually) and everyone is gone, then the meanings of everyone’s lives is also gone.

    So the point is that our lives can have no *ultimate* meaning or value. There will come a time when all meaning has evaporated and our lives at that point won’t amount to a hill of beans. Who will give a crap what we did a million years ago? Who will be around to give a crap? Whereas if eternal life is true, then our lives have ultimate meaning, they will always mean something to someone.

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    • I can see your reasoning, but why would you give a crap what you did on earth a million years ago after a million years in heaven? Is heaven going to turn out to be an infinite version of Springsteen’s “Glory Days” where we endlessly rehash our brief moment of glory?

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  3. Agellius says:

    Because what you do on earth makes you into the kind of being you will be in eternity. It’s not a matter of individual deeds necessarily mattering after a million years. It’s the fact that everything you do makes you who you are, *and who you will always be*. Whatever you make of yourself, you will have to live with *forever*.

    I can see an atheist believing that his deeds on earth matter, because he has to live with himself for the rest of his life. But what if he finds out he only has a week to live? In that case he only has to live with himself for a week, which is much less of a deterrent to wicked living. In fact he can decide to stop living with himself, through suicide, whenever he wants, without fear of consequences. So why not spend a week raping and pillaging and then blow his own brains out? (Which sounds to me like a lot of these mass shooters.)

    Whereas a Christian is especially concerned with how he conducts himself near the end of his life, since he’s that much closer to being judged.

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  4. I am going to reject both parts of your argument.

    I had a niece who was killed by a drunk driver when she was 16, is that who she is going to be for all eternity? What about the massive numbers of children who died in infancy throughout human history? Is that all they are going to be for eternity? Also, if who we are on Earth determines who we are for eternity, then what is the need of purgatory? My understanding of purgatory is that it purges us of all our sinfulness (i.e. completely changes us) so that we are worthy of the presence of god. If we need to be completely changed what was the point of living on Earth? What was the point of the resurrection? I am not at all buying this as giving some kind of meaning to life on Earth.

    As to your second point, yes, why don’t atheists run roughshod over their fellow humans? Well, it must be because they have a stronger moral compass than do religious believers. What you are telling me is that you would rape and pillage and murder, except for your fear of being punished by god. Honestly, I don’t think you would do that, as I am sure you have a strong moral compass. I can also assure you that I don’t rape and pillage and murder (and won’t be inclined to do so even in the last few moments of my life) because I see them as wrong in and of themselves.

    Now you could say that I am not actually moral and am just afraid of being punished in this life, and I can buy that. But I would say that my experience has been that when many theists use this kind of argument (that atheists will do anything because they don’t fear eternal punishment) what they really mean is that people like me are not inclined to follow the arbitrary rules that theists feel their god or holy book has laid down.

    So, I might independently come the conclusion that eating pork (as opposed to beef, say) doesn’t really have a moral component, so I am going to do it. You could substitute all kinds of things here, saying certain words, masturbating, coveting my neighbor’s goods and so on. First let me say that I fully understand that all of those things will sometimes (maybe even often) have a moral component. For example, if I try to serve you pork when I know you are opposed, that would be wrong. But in general they don’t have much moral component, so we atheists might run around doing “awful” things that theists think we are going to be judged for (like eating bacon or skipping church.)

    Once again, I have to say once again, that there is no superiority in the theists position there either. Following some precept simply because it will please (or displease) some more powerful being is not morality. Deciding what to based on it’s effects on other people and yourself, that is morality.

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  5. Agellius says:

    Regarding your second paragraph: I can’t understand what your objection is. Are you saying that our actions do *not* make us who we are? That we’re born one way and stay that way until we die? Surely you don’t mean to argue that our character continues to evolve *after* death?

    Purgatory doesn’t “completely change us”. It’s where people suffer the temporal punishments due to the sins they committed while living, in satisfaction of justice; “temporal” as opposed to eternal punishment for sin, which is hell. Purgatory is also spoken of as purging us of our inordinate attachments to things, that is, things that we love more than we should.

    As to your third paragraph, I did not say that I would rape and pillage and murder except for my fear of being punished by “god” (by the way, it’s offensive to me have “God” spelled in lowercase. Would you mind terribly if I asked you to observe the usual punctuational conventions?). There was a time when I didn’t believe in God, yet refrained from those things, probably due to a feeling that I couldn’t live with myself if I did them. No, what I actually said was that an atheist with only a short time to live has neither the prospect of years of a tortured conscience to act as a deterrent to evil deeds, nor the prospect of punishment in the afterlife. Further, that someone with no prospect of eternity to fear, could in any case kill himself at any time, if he found that he couldn’t live with his conscience.

    You say that your deterrent to evil deeds is your “moral compass”. A compass is an instrument which tells you which direction you’re facing. A moral compass, then, tells you whether something is right or wrong. But I wasn’t disputing whether an atheist knows right from wrong. I was discussing what deterrent an atheist has to committing evil deeds. Merely knowing that they’re evil isn’t enough. People often violate their own consciences. What is it, other than knowing right from wrong (i.e. having a moral compass) which prevents you from doing wrong?

    I will just note in passing that a compass tells you what direction you’re facing, therefore a moral compass must tell you right from wrong. But the existence of a moral compass implies that there is an objective right and wrong which is detected by the compass, just as there is an objective North that is detected by a literal compass. You are evidently saying, then, that you believe in an objective right and wrong that exists independently of individual opinions of right and wrong. Also, that people are capable of knowing this objective right and wrong, via their individual moral compasses.

    You write, “Now you could say that I am not actually moral and am just afraid of being punished in this life, and I can buy that.”

    If you can buy that you’re not actually moral and are just afraid of being punished in this life (which by the way, I did not say), then I’m not sure on what basis you dispute my argument that imminent death gives you a moral free pass. If you know your death is imminent, then punishment in this life is of no concern to you. If that was your only deterrent then you’re free to act as you choose.

    You write, “First let me say that I fully understand that all of those things will sometimes (maybe even often) have a moral component. For example, if I try to serve you pork when I know you are opposed, that would be wrong.”

    But spelling “God” in lowercase, in a comment directed to me, is not wrong, though you know I’m opposed to it?

    You write, “But in general they don’t have much moral component, so we atheists might run around doing “awful” things that theists think we are going to be judged for (like eating bacon or skipping church.)”

    I know the difference between doing things you know to be wrong, and doing things you don’t believe to be wrong. The former you are culpable for, the latter you’re not. This is in accord with Catholic teaching.

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    • It was you who implied that we don’t continue to grow and develop after reaching the afterlife. I simply pointed out the logical result of that position. If we stay who we were on Earth, then the afterlife is full of infants and illiterate, uneducated peasants. If, on the other hand we continue to grow and develop in the afterlife (for all eternity) then our life here on Earth has about as much meaning as, say, the first 10 seconds of our life as compared to what we become after. And the “meaning” of our lives was the original topic.
      Once again you mention the “deterrent effect” that religion has on “bad” behavior and then want to claim that it has no effect on you. You can’t have it both ways. If the celestial carrot and stick is what motivates you (and other religious people) then that is not really a system of morality, it is simply following a list of rules out of fear. And that is what you said, twice now, that an atheist, having no fear of eternal punishment is liable to do anything. This is a position taken by many theists, and to me that says that they themselves feel that the the threat of hell is the only thing keeping them from doing “bad” things.
      As to the rules of grammar, yes proper names are normally capitalized. But I don’t see “god” as a name. Yahweh is. Allah is. Thor is. And Anubis is. Jesus too. Even if all of them turn out to be fictional characters. But “god” is not a proper noun. It may not even be a noun. A noun is a “person, place or thing” and I am not sure that “god” is any of those things. Even according to theists “god” is beyond space and time and outside the realm of the natural. I just saw yesterday someone writing that “god” is really a verb. There is no such thing as a “proper verb” that must be capitalized.
      And finally, once again, if we have to be punished for our sins in purgatory, what was it that Jesus died for again? Certainly not the forgiveness of sins.

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  6. Agellius says:

    You write, ‘It was you who implied that we don’t continue to grow and develop after reaching the afterlife. I simply pointed out the logical result of that position. If we stay who we were on Earth, then the afterlife is full of infants and illiterate, uneducated peasants.’

    Maybe it wasn’t clear, though in the context I thought it was, that I was talking about moral decisions. Our moral decisions don’t directly affect our intellects or our bodies, nor our social class, therefore I wasn’t talking about how smart we will be in heaven, nor whether we will remain peasants, nor what our biological age will be. (In case it’s also unclear, we also won’t wear the same clothes we were wearing when we died, nor bear the wounds that we died of, if applicable. : )

    You write, ‘Once again you mention the “deterrent effect” that religion has on “bad” behavior and then want to claim that it has no effect on you. You can’t have it both ways.’

    You draw an unwarranted conclusion here, as you did the first time. Please note what I said, and try not to read anything more into it: I simply said that an atheist lacks a particular deterrent to evil deeds: that of punishment in the afterlife. It doesn’t follow logically, nor did I say, that he has no other deterrent.

    I conceded that an atheist may have a deterrent to evil deeds, consisting of the prospect of an unbearable conscience. But my question is, how much of a deterrent is that, if ultimately he doesn’t have to bear his conscience? If, whenever his conscience becomes unbearable, he can pull a trigger and snuff his conscience out of existence? It’s a question. What’s your answer?

    You gave the answer of a “moral compass”, but as I pointed out, a compass only indicates direction, it doesn’t give you any incentive to go in one direction rather than another.

    Note again that I haven’t said there can be no other deterrent to evil deeds other than an afterlife. I’m simply asking what other deterrent there is.

    You write, ‘If the celestial carrot and stick is what motivates you (and other religious people) then that is not really a system of morality, it is simply following a list of rules out of fear.’

    You’re wrong about this, perhaps because you’re unable to see things from the theist’s perspective. Yes, the threat of punishment exists, and acts as a deterrent to sin for Christians. But another thing also acts as a deterrent for a Christian: The love of God. When you experience conversion to Christian faith, you’re not merely converting to the belief that ‘you’d better be good or you’re gonna get it’. You’re experiencing a whole new way of looking at life, which, to say the least, is good and beautiful and wonderful. The result is that you come to appreciate God’s goodness in a way you never had before. You begin to love goodness because it’s good, and to be repulsed by evil because it’s opposed to good and opposed to God (which is really the same thing).

    A lot of atheists probably love good and dread evil too, but it’s obviously not because of having a love for God and a conviction of God’s love for them. What it is, though, I can’t say.

    You write, ‘As to the rules of grammar, yes proper names are normally capitalized. But I don’t see “god” as a name. Yahweh is. Allah is. Thor is. And Anubis is. Jesus too. Even if all of them turn out to be fictional characters. But “god” is not a proper noun.’

    We can argue about whether or not “God” is a proper name. But I was appealing to your statement that it would be wrong to serve pork to someone who thought it was wrong to eat pork, even if you thought there was nothing wrong with it. Does the same principle not apply to spelling “God” in lowercase, in conversations with me, when I find it offensive?

    But moving on to the grammatical argument: What makes “God” a proper name is that it refers to a specific being. If you’re talking about the common Western notion of God, the unique, all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal and infinite creator of all that exists, who punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous after death, then you are talking about one specific being, whether or not you believe he is real. God is every bit as specific a being as Harry Potter, whose name we all capitalize even though we don’t believe he exists.

    God is also every bit as specific as Yahweh, since in fact he IS Yahweh. Yahweh (like Jehovah) is basically someone’s guess at the missing vowels in the Hebrew name for God, YHWH. In the scriptures, “LORD” is used in place of “YHWH”, and “God” is used instead of the Hebrew word “Elohim”, which refers to the same being whose name is YHWH. In other words, whether you refer to him as Yahweh (or Jehovah), the LORD, Elohim, or God, they all refer to the same specific being, namely the unique, all-powerful creator of the universe, and no other.

    Obviously Jews and Christians agree on the foregoing, but the Muslims do as well, professing that Allah is the same God as that of the Jewish scriptures, and the same as that of the Christian scriptures of the New Testament.

    Clearly then, in common usage “God” refers to the specific Jewish, Christian and Muslim concept of God, whereas “god” in the generic sense refers to any number of generic, non-specific gods. You betray your understanding of this fact in your own writing, by referring to “god” without any further specification, and yet expecting me to know what you mean by the term. For example you write, “[Theists] often argue that the afterlife (and god) makes everything meaningful.” Clearly you were referring to the Jewish/Christian/Muslim concept of God, and further you assumed that your readers would know that was who you were referring to (notwithstanding your non-standard capitalization). This is made clear by your use of “god” without any further description. If it was really intended to be generic and not specific, then why is no further explanation necessary in order for your readers to know whom you mean? Why were you not concerned that they might think you were referring to Thor or to Zeus? They assumed, and you knew they would assume, that you were referring to the commonly understood, Western notion of God. And this is every bit as specific a reference as Thor or Zeus.

    You write, ‘And finally, once again, if we have to be punished for our sins in purgatory, what was it that Jesus died for again? Certainly not the forgiveness of sins.’

    You will note that I drew a distinction between temporal punishment for sins, which takes place in purgatory — and on earth too for that matter — and eternal damnation, which takes place in hell. Jesus dying for our sins provides a way of salvation from eternal damnation, but it doesn’t let us off scot-free for all of the sins we may commit for the rest of our lives. In this regard see Heb. 12:5-11, which includes the statement, “[T]he Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (but read the rest as well).

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    • Moral development, intellectual development, doesn’t matter. If it ends with our death on earth, the afterlife is full of moral two year olds. The point is the same.
      And once again, yes, I suppose it is possible that an atheist could pile up “bad” acts and then kill themselves because they have no fear of eternal retribution. But once again that just kicks the can down the road, does that mean that theists don’t do such things because they fear hell. If so, that is not moral development, it is just acting out of fear.
      And finally, if we have to continue to “pay” for our sins, if we are still culpable for them on an individual basis, I say the so called “sacrifice” of Jesus is worthless. If the governor pardons me, I don’t have to continue to wear an ankle bracelet. God can’t even do what a governor can do?

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      • Agellius says:

        ‘Moral development, intellectual development, doesn’t matter. If it ends with our death on earth, the afterlife is full of moral two year olds. The point is the same.’

        Now you’re talking about psychological maturity, whereas I was talking about the moral state of one’s soul, which really has nothing to do with age.

        ‘And once again, yes, I suppose it is possible that an atheist could pile up “bad” acts and then kill themselves because they have no fear of eternal retribution. But once again that just kicks the can down the road, does that mean that theists don’t do such things because they fear hell. If so, that is not moral development, it is just acting out of fear.’

        I believe you have already made this argument, and I answered it in my last comment. Accordingly I will let my previous arguments speak for themselves.

        ‘And finally, if we have to continue to “pay” for our sins, if we are still culpable for them on an individual basis, I say the so called “sacrifice” of Jesus is worthless. If the governor pardons me, I don’t have to continue to wear an ankle bracelet. God can’t even do what a governor can do?’

        You evidently can’t or won’t see the distinction between eternal damnation and temporal punishment. Your example of a governor pardoning a perpetrator only illustrates temporal punishment. If Jesus’ sacrifice was intended to remit all temporal punishments due to sin, then you would have a point. But the remission of temporal punishment is not what is meant by “eternal salvation”.

        See, we’re temporal creatures in this life. We can only commit a finite number of sins before we die. Therefore the temporal punishment that is due to those sins is also finite; no matter how long the punishment lasts, it will end eventually. Whereas eternal damnation by definition is neverending. Faith in Christ and repentance for our sins saves us from damnation, but not from temporal punishment. It’s basically the difference between meting out discipline to a child, and disowning him forever, treating him as if he were dead to you — although in reality it’s the individual disowning God forever.

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      • “Moral state of the soul”?? I have no idea what such a thing would even be. But, if, as you say, it doesn’t depend on age then this, once again leads to the idea that our life on Earth is pretty meaningless. If the “moral state” of my soul doesn’t change, what is the point of extra time on earth?
        Your “previous arguments” about how lack of eternal punishment makes people amoral still are not persuasive.
        If damnation is the individual rejecting god, then there is absolutely no need of a “sacrifice” for salvation. All that is needed is for god to say, “Hi, I’m Yahweh. Believe in me now?” No need for humankind to be saved, just every person making their own decision, once being made aware of all the facts.

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  7. Agellius says:

    Understanding the point of “extra time” on earth requires understanding God’s purpose in making us and putting us on this earth in the first place, as well as the nature of salvation. Am I to explain these things in a comment to a blog post?

    You write, ‘Your “previous arguments” about how lack of eternal punishment makes people amoral still are not persuasive.’

    And you still, amazingly, continue to draw this unwarranted conclusion from my arguments. How many times must I repeat myself? I have not said that the lack of belief in eternal punishment makes people amoral. In fact I have said the contrary: That when I was an atheist I still refrained from the most egregious types of immoral acts, for no reason other than that I could not have lived with myself had I committed them.

    What I did say, was that an atheist lacks the deterrent of eternal punishment. Is that true or not? Are you saying that atheists do *not* lack that deterrent? If you agree that they *do* lack that deterrent, then we’re in agreement on this point, are we not? In which case, what exactly have I said in this regard, which you find unpersuasive?

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    • The reason I am confused is that you are confusing. On the one hand you say that “refrained from the most egregious of moral acts” when you were an atheist and therefore did not believe in eternal punishment. Which sounds to me like you did not need eternal punishment as a derrent for bad behavior, social punishment or your own thoughts were enough. And then you say that “lacks the deterrent” of eternal punishment. Which, yes is absolutely true, an atheist lacks such a deterrent.
      My argument is that lacking such deterrent, an atheist is actually MORE moral than a theist who is under threat of eternal punishment. Doing something out of fear of punishment is not morality.

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      • Agellius says:

        The reason you’re confused is you keep assuming that when I say an atheist lacks the deterrent of eternal punishment, he therefore lacks ALL deterrent; but I never said that. However I did ask you what deterrent an atheist has, and you have not answered other than to mention a ‘moral compass.’

        Acting morally has nothing to do with a person’s motives for doing so. Your actions are either moral or they’re not. If you refrain from murdering someone you’re refraining from immorality, regardless of your reason for doing so.

        A Christian would agree that there’s no particular merit in refraining from immorality out of fear. It ought to be done out of love for goodness, which is the same as love for God — as I’ve said before. However an atheist obviously doesn’t love God.

        So (as I’ve asked before) what is an atheist’s motive for obeying the moral law? What makes his refraining from immorality meritorious?

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      • If by “moral law” you mean some kind of universal absolutes, then there is no such thing as “moral law.” I never said that “refraining from immorality” was meritorious, as I am not even sure what such a thing would look like. I would also disagree that morality is somehow independent of a persons intentions.

        In the past you mentioned hell as the motivator (or lack of motivator) for morailty and now you switch to the love of god. If you ask what I think an atheist morality is based on, I would say something like “respect.” Respect for our fellow humans, and the earth that we share.

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  8. Agellius says:

    You previously said that atheists refrain from acting immorally due to their moral compass. As I pointed out at the time, the existence of a moral compass implies that there is an objective right and wrong which is detected by the compass, just as there is an objective North that is detected by a literal compass. You were evidently saying, then, that you believed in an objective right and wrong that exists independently of individual opinions of right and wrong. You expressed no disagreement at the time.

    If there is no objective right and wrong, as you’re now saying, i.e. no moral law, then what does a moral compass point to?

    And again if you “disagree that morality is independent of a person’s intentions”, as you say, then does a moral compass merely point to a person’s intentions? But why would you need a compass to point to your own intentions?

    You didn’t use the word “meritorious”, but you did say that an atheist who acts morally is “more moral” than a Christian who acts out of fear of punishment. Isn’t this the same as saying that there is more merit in the atheist’s morality than there is in the Christian’s?

    It seems to me that if the behavior of both the atheist and the Christian is the same, then their morality is the same. But if the atheist is somehow better than the Christian, due to having better motives for acting morally, then what you’re saying is that the atheist’s morality is more meritorious than the Christian’s. If not, then what does it mean to say that he’s “more moral”?

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    • I am simply saying that following orders based on rewards and punishments is of a lower moral development than figuring things out for one’s self. The former is what children do. Obviously, many Christians do more than follow orders and certainly many atheists are not very morally developed. What I am saying is that theism in all its forms is much more prone to the “following orders” model. In general, other philosophical systems are more of the “figure it out” model.

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      • Agellius says:

        That’s fine, you’re entitled to your opinion. I’m just saying that I don’t understand how you’re using “moral” in this context. Is it automatically moral because you figure it out for yourself? What if you figure out for yourself that you would like to murder someone, or have a sex slave?

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  9. You mean if I “figured out” that murdering Hitler was a good thing? Assuming I was in Germany in the early ’40s , of course. There I would be using the ethical reasoning of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I assume you would pass on your opportunity to kill Hitler because god said, “Thou shalt not kill.”

    And, hey, maybe someone would enjoy being my sex slave…who am I to take their fun away?

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      • Agellius says:

        Really? Then maybe I’m just slow. Can you can spell out for me what your answer was to the question of what it means to be “moral” in that context (the context being your assertion that an atheist is more moral than a Christian)?

        Also your answer to the question “Is it automatically moral because you figure it out for yourself?”

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      • I do love how you keep moving the goalposts around. 🙂

        You once again threw up the strawman of atheists just going around murdering people, since without god there is nothing to stop them. We both know this is not true. And I also pointed out that if your belief in god is the only thing keeping you from gunning down people, that is not morality, that is compliance.

        You asked me what would happen if I “decided” to murder someone. I considered who I would “decide” to murder. It seems to me that it would have to be at least someone like Hitler, if I was even going to consider capital punishment. I also indicated that I would use (at least in part) utilitarian ethics to justify that decision. That’s what moral reasoning IS. That is to say, I agree with the moral precept “Thou shalt not kill.” I don’t need god to decide that, I decided that on my own and hold to that (I am steadfastly opposed to capital punishment and lean very pacifist when it comes to the military). But, the import to your question (even though you didn’t really mean it that way, it was the red herring) was “Is there ever a reason to decide to not follow my moral precept.” So, Hitler is a reasonable answer to that hypothetical question. Not a red herring at all.

        It is in fact YOU that dodged the question of whether you would use your moral/ethical reasoning to break “Thou shalt not kill” in the case of Hitler (or someone similar) or do you follow the commandment as an unbreakable moral law? And if you decide to kill Hitler, does that mean that your moral reasoning is superior to god given law?

        I will not say that any moral/ethical decision reached through reasoning and logic is necessarily a superior one. What I said was that in most theories of moral development (i.e. Kohlberg) figuring out what to do in a given situation using reasoning (in combination with your own moral principles) is an adult skill as compared to that of a child simply following directions out of love or fear of their parents.

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  10. Agellius says:

    You write, ‘You asked me what would happen if I “decided” to murder someone.’

    I didn’t ask “what would happen”. I asked whether the fact that you figured it out for yourself automatically makes it moral.

    I was trying to give examples of things which everyone would agree are wrong: murder, and keeping someone as a sex slave — “slave” obviously implying that it was against the person’s will. I assumed that even an atheist would agree that those things are morally bad, without having to quibble over it, which would only distract us from the main point. My mistake. : )

    You write, ‘the import to your question (even though you didn’t really mean it that way, it was the red herring) was “Is there ever a reason to decide to not follow my moral precept.”’

    This in fact had nothing to do with my question, which is why I called it a red herring. My two questions were, (1) how were you using “moral” in the context of saying that an atheist is “more moral” than a Christian; and (2) whether something is automatically moral by virtue of someone figuring it out for himself.

    You write, ‘It is in fact YOU that dodged the question of whether you would use your moral/ethical reasoning to break “Thou shalt not kill” in the case of Hitler (or someone similar) …’

    It’s hard to understand how I could dodge a question, when no question was asked. You stated what you assumed I would do, but did not ask me what I would do. (‘I assume you would pass on your opportunity to kill Hitler because god said, “Thou shalt not kill.”’)

    You write, ‘What I said was that in most theories of moral development (i.e. Kohlberg) figuring out what to do in a given situation using reasoning (in combination with your own moral principles) is an adult skill as compared to that of a child simply following directions out of love or fear of their parents.’

    Then again I must ask, what makes an atheist “more moral” than a Christian? From this latest statement, it sounds like you’re equating “adult reasoning” with morality, and “following directions” with immorality. Is that what you mean by “moral” in this context?

    Let me try another tack. You have made basically the following statements:

    Atheist: More moral
    Christian: Less moral

    Atheist: Figures out morality for himself
    Christian: Receives morality from others

    Atheist: Exercises his adult skill of figuring out morality in a given situation
    Christian: Follows directions out of love or fear

    Therefore: It’s more *adult* to figure out morality than to receive morality; and it’s more *moral* to figure out morality than to receive morality.

    The conclusion seems to be that “moral” is equivalent to “adult”. But — what does that even mean?

    Suppose that instead of morality we were discussing something else that people can either figure out for themselves, or learn from others. How about piano playing? Is it better to figure out piano playing for oneself, than to learn it from others? Is it more adult?

    You might answer that that’s different, since piano playing is something objective, and morality is not. But isn’t the desirable level of skill on the piano a matter of subjective preference? Some may like being able to read music and play notes in correct time and in tune, but others may prefer to make the music up as they go along, and play sloppily. Is it not a matter of preference?

    As for me, I would consider the person who prefers to do things his own way on the piano, as more childish than someone who is willing to put in the work and endure the tedium of learning to play properly. It’s immature to want things to come easily to you, to want things your own way all the time, and to avoid difficulties. It’s mature to be willing to deny yourself immediate gratification, and to be willing to submit yourself to someone else’s direction, in preference to doing things your own way, for the sake of a greater good later on. The fact that I choose to receive the knowledge of how to play properly from others, takes nothing away from the maturity of my decision to follow that path.

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    • So, let’s say the wonderful piano teacher you love and have been diligently studying with for decades gave you a book she wrote titled The Piano Bible. She believes she is the best piano teacher ever and she’s recorded her thoughts on what makes a good piano player and has included a long list of her rules. If you didn’t follow her rules, you can’t play in a concert you really want to be in even though a professional symphony scout was going to be there to listen to you. They’re great rules to live by (said with sarcasm)…no eating peanut butter on Tuesdays, no walking barefoot in the grass, never think or say there’s another piano teacher as good and perfect as I am, keep your head shaved, only use a mule for transportation…I could go on but I won’t.

      Would you follow those rules because someone you admired and respected told you they believed the rules would make you a better, more worthy piano player (even though you probably don’t agree because they have nothing to do with playing piano) or would you follow them just to placate her, which would result in you being able to play in the concert and then maybe be invited to play with the symphony? Would you only follow the rules you thought you could live with and hope she didn’t find out about the rules you broke?

      I would not characterize it as mature to follow the piano teachers rule book, when it is filled with mostly senseless rules, merely so you can reap the benefit and reward of being allowed to play in the concert. I think it’s more mature to stay true to yourself and play not so well rather than follow her self-created and very unreasonable piano rules just to have a shot at the symphony. Quite honestly, the whole idea of someone believing they possess the ultimate and only correct rules of piano playing (or humanity) reminds me very much of my narcissistic ex-husband.

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  11. Agellius says:

    Mercy:

    Your argument rests on the absurdity of treating a piano teacher as if she were God. It would be equally absurd to treat anyone besides God as if he were God. It doesn’t follow that it’s absurd to treat God as if he were God.

    In any case, the point of my analogy still stands: That there is nothing childish per se about being taught something rather than figuring it out for yourself.

    We can argue over the extent to which it is reasonable to believe in the truth of Catholicism, that is, whether God as Catholicism represents him is the true God. But granting that one believes in the Catholic faith, it is only reasonable to obey its moral precepts, and there is nothing per se immature about doing so.

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