But What DO You Believe in?

Yes, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in leprechauns, ghosts, fairies, angels, the soul, or supreme, omnipotent invisible friends.

But what does that leave? What actual moral underpinnings do I have in my life?

For the theists in the crowd, let me ask you this: How do you know God is good? The holy books of all the major religions are around 2000 years old, give or take 500. They were written in an age when outright slavery, treating women as slaves, stoning, and the systematic murder of your enemy’s children were acceptable. These books contain exhortations to commit these crimes. But you, and your fellow believers, choose to ignore those passages. Why? How do you pick and choose?

You pick and choose because you have an innate, modern sense of what’s right, and you apply it to that book, consciously or not. What’s the source of that judgement? Whatever it is, that’s the moral underpinning of my life. I don’t need the threat of being spanked by Sky Father to know what’s right and what’s wrong.

Researchers have been exploring this lately– trying to tease out where that morality comes from, how it is built into our brains and why. Some of it is simple game theory. We’re social, communal creatures. We live and die by the success of our community. That’s not possible without some sense of the value of selflessness. It requires that certain acts be taboo, and that sometimes the community must come before the individual. It’s built into the math of survival. The same applies for our primate cousins that live in troops.

As with anything in the real world, this theory gets more complex the closer you look. There are benefits to the individual in being a cheater. But the society can only support a certain percentage of cheaters before it collapses. There are certain benefits to being overly generous, but again, too much is counterproductive.

This all sounds pretty dry, and not very satisfying for someone with an appetite for spiritual awakening. But again, there is interesting research into why we have that appetite. There are parts of the brain that are activated by transcendent experiences, and, more tellingly, those experiences can be triggered by artificially activating one of those parts of the brain. Why should this be? I’m not aware of a definitive answer to this, but rest assured the research continues.

There are things in my life that activate that experience without prayer or meditation. The intricate beauty of the actual world. Its exquisite interconnectedness. The simple, powerful elegance of mathematics. (Do I sound a bit like Carl Sagan? No coincidence there.) Also the contemplation of the amazing things that people say and do. The art that we create. The power of love. Life is full to the brim with wonder. Real life. Here in this world. These are the things I believe in. These are the things that inform my moral decisions, my sense of wonder, my burning need to go on, to see more, to do good.

In my world, there is no afterlife. I don’t get the chance to party in heaven if I ask forgiveness for my crimes. I don’t worry about being tortured for all time if I don’t. I strive to do good because it’s the right thing to do. I get only one chance to do right, and it’s precious and important. The only thing left of me after I die is the memory of me in the minds of others, and the consequences of the things I’ve done. I can only hope that is, on balance, a good thing.

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