A.1. The Practical Conduct of Life
The course of Creation and evolution and the goals and ideals of human life are discussed in the chapters above. It was indicated that human evolution comes from innumerable small steps, but also from the contributions of a few exceptional individuals. Therefore, there is no doubt in my mind that such contributions are expected from all exceptional individuals.
The discussion of the right conduct of life must be a very practical one. Real life has to cope with practical matters, with daily necessities, with compromises, with not being able to do everything one sets out to do, with serious setbacks, but with not giving up either.
The basic values must come first – survival and security, harmony and support within the family, and the natural needs for shelter, food, and procreation. The mid-level of values are a basis for the highest value. By themselves, the mid-level values are a bit too normal to pay much attention to and become important only when their satisfaction is prevented – success and comfort, positive significance in clan and society, refinement and entertainment. The top values give true meaning to our lives – mental growth, service to others, the community, charity, and stewardship for the natural world – and enjoyment of beauty and culture.
A good tree has a good root system, grows a strong and tall trunk toward the light, and develops a broad crown. Your life should be based on thorough learning for the development of your mind and character. You must become an expert and reach excellence in at least one marketable skill. Your network of friends is an important part of your roots. You should develop your position in life in focused growth, obtain rank in your job, make some money, and save a good part of it to be able to make use of opportunities and to stay free. Then, it is time to branch out in hobbies and interests – and in public service or charity. In the two latter areas, you can do more from a position of strength in rank and wealth.
The conduct of life,
expressed in modern terms, is a management task. In earlier times, human thinking along those
lines was developed in the field of administration and warfare. There are enough books about these subjects,
from historical writings to Clausewitz and the newest management handbooks from
The choice of a profession or approach to life is a difficult one for many young people, as well as those in a mid-life crisis. Any one choice means the giving up of others, thus implying a narrowing of life’s horizon. Every choice has negative aspects. There are conflicting motivations to choose one or the other. There is no easy answer. There is only the general experience that any one of the more reasonable and honest choices not conflicting with personal values can, if properly and sincerely pursued, lead to equal happiness or fulfillment of life.
There are at least three successful ways to build your life:
* Play your strong cards, pursue what you are especially capable off, where you have an advantage over others.
* Follow your dreams. You will be more successful in what you are really committed to do and, mainly, in what you enjoy doing.
* Follow opportunity, let life lead you, give luck a chance. The art lies first in recognizing opportunities and then in grasping them.
There are several ways to waste your life:
* By not ending school and college on a level of excellence in your chosen field.
* Dissipating your outlook and your energies with bad friends, insignificant amusements, drugs, alcohol, “finding” yourself, doing too many things.
* By pettiness and shallow pleasures, by shallow entertainment, by sitting back too long to enjoy rest, by not reaching out and learning more, getting more accomplished, helping more.
* By not putting in honest work for honest pay.
* By over-reaching, not knowing your limits, indulging in hubris.
As Clausewitz or some other general said: The more committed combatant has the better chances to win. In our day, the one who puts in the extra hour of study, work, or intelligent thought has the better chance of prospering.
Sit back every day and think about
* your priorities
* a smarter way to accomplish your task, be creative!!!
* who can help you in doing it or can do it for you
Don’t put your money into consumption, put it into investment.
President Reagan is said to have chosen the members of his team by three criteria:
* Does he or she have integrity?
* Does he or she have the right capability?
* Does he or she get things done?
There is no point in trying to buy friendship or love. If somebody does not want to be your friend, deal with him or her on the basis of facts. Minimize your own weaknesses, emphasize your strengths. Collect all the necessary information first, probe the adversary’s behavior pattern and weakness. If you cannot surprise him, observe how he moves. Then, put all your effort into the first encounter, to get rid of him right then and there. Think beforehand what he might do next and block that avenue, too. Turn away and try to never see him or her again. Your defeated enemy may remain revengeful forever.
If you cannot win a decisive engagement the first or next time soon, move away, isolate and fortify yourself against your adversary, build friendly connections with those in power, and wait till your adversary shows weakness or is finished off by somebody else.
Zen (but only some of it) is useful. Understand problems and adversaries from the inside out. Put yourself in their position. When criticizing others, think of what you have done under similar circumstances.
If you cannot expect to win, try to let your adversary understand your side, win him over ... and still go your own way as long as you can.
Anybody whom you defeat, criticize, or fire is prone to become your enemy and, first of all, is prone to spread bad rumors about you.
Don’t explain your unpleasant deeds. It just gets you into endless arguments.
Even when rejecting the requests of others, or when prevailing over others, we must see the brother or sister in the other human being. Try to help those you have to fire. Let them keep their self-respect and try to help him or her toward a new start. Do not expect any thanks for doing this, however.
We should be trustworthy in our dealings with others, be known for our integrity, and better be humble than insist on having it our way. Smart talk is always transparent.
The more people you get along with, the greater your network.
Even a short sentence spoken to another person in passing may be remembered by that person for a long time; it may even influence that person’s life. Say and do what is right, always, also to the meek and humble.
Say only good things (or nothing) about other people behind their backs. In due time, you will become known for that, people will confide in you, and will do the same for you.
We must conduct our lives in accordance with our ethical standards, in a wise compromise with reality.
Life may be longer than your planning horizon. Think in five-year terms, at least, better in ten-year terms, where you want to be at that time. Think how you want to look back on life, especially when it gets late.
All lives offer moments or situations of opportunities. To find opportunities, you may have to begin by casting a wide net, then narrowing down on promising areas.
The art is in recognizing, grasping, and transforming opportunities into success. To learn and implement this must be your highest priority! Opportunities may pass you in plain sight or pass you silently behind your back. Some may turn out to be empty temptations, some may turn into obsession. Prudent determination is needed to reach success.
A.2. The Course of Society
Are individuals for the benefit of society, or is society for the benefit of individuals? Obviously, this is the wrong question to describe the actual relation, setting one up for erroneous consequences, as do so many questions of this type of interrelated needs and benefits.
Individuals must contribute to the benefit of society, and society must see its purpose in the benefit for the individuals. In this sense, society must be supportive of the purpose, goals, and values of individuals.
What is the right structure of society, between families, clans, nations, regional units, interest groups, social groups, ethnic groups? What form do priority ranking and conflict resolution take between these substructures? The answer is obviously not within the scope of this essay. However, a few thoughts can be expressed.
Economic strength makes the solution of many problems much easier.
Building and maintaining economic strength requires some political freedom, lots of leadership capability within the population, intellectual capability, and work ethic, and – one should note – moral strength in the community. This moral strength is needed to maintain law and order and mutual trust, the bases of a functioning society.
Society’s harmony is built on cultural harmony, including ethnic harmony. In the long run, the existence of abusive and selfish subgroups is detrimental.
A culture has a right to maintain its own identity, as families do. One should love and help one’s neighbor, but one cannot let every stranger into one’s house or backyard. Several families sharing a kitchen get into trouble with each other.
Cultural plurality works only if the common cultural band is stronger than the cultural selfishness of the subgroups.
A.3. Summary of Prevalent Views and Proposed Expansions
What do all the previous considerations indicate and how should they be expanded in order to arrive at a convincing concept of existence?
- What are the traditional concepts within the Christian faith, and how should they be expanded?
- How should the scientific view be expanded, in order to fully understand existence?
- What is the view of practical thought tempered by human sensitivity – and how should it be expanded?
A.3.1. Summary of Traditional Christian Teaching or Theology –
and Their Proposed Expansion
* Creation is seen as a one-time event and as static.
* Christian tradition is presented as being based only on Jewish tradition.
* The image of God is the “God-father”.
* Theodicy (for example, the “Job question”) generally arrives at positive conclusions.
* Divine predeterminism (and providence) is assumed by many believers.
* Trinity is a central concept.
* There is a devil as a God-opposed spiritual force acting in this world.
* Jesus, God’s only son, taught a God-father image, the superiority of human needs over the Jewish Law, the importance of the spirit of the Law over the letter of the Law, the ethics of compassionate brotherly love, and respect for the meek, the poor, the merciful, and the peacemakers. Jesus did miracles and sacrificed himself for mankind’s salvation.
* Christian ethical demands are absolute, with no limitations or compromises being discussed.
* The concepts of “soul”, as the essence of the human being, and the soul’s immortality are of central importance.
* The concepts of sin, good deeds, faith, ultimate divine judgment, and divine punishment or redemption form the important structure of Christian life and afterlife.
* The church centers its teaching on human sinfulness, need for loyal faith, possible divine forgiving, grace, and the afterlife. In the Catholic faith, special importance is given to the role of saints and Mary, and a central significance to priests and their hierarchy.
* The church’s theology is nature-based, emphasizing the “dignity” of all human life (above other creatures and the environment), contrary to utilitarian or politically totalitarian concepts of personal life. In this sense, Christian doctrine offers a religion that is supportive of human life. (However, all Christian teachings could be and were perverted by the church and numerous sects.)
* The church’s hierarchy is often narrowly focused and projects a pompous appearance.
How should the traditional Christian theological view be expanded?
Following are comments regarding the above statements:
“Creation is seen as a one-time event and existence, in this sense, as static.”
Traditional Christian theology does not consider the dynamic aspect of Creation in natural evolution, the evolution of the human mind, and the evolution of human cultures. This leads to important shortcomings in understanding God and the reality of existence in this world.
An expanded Christian view would have to see God as an ongoing creator, from the inanimate first phase of Creation, with its natural laws and subject to random events, to the animate second phase that is subject to the Darwinian laws of selection. Aspects of fairness and compassion appear only in the very late third phase of Creation, as humans appear with their “humane” values. Humans are still subject, however, to the inanimate events and the struggle of species and individuals. Such a view would be challenged by scientific observation. This view would necessarily lead to a contradictory, if not cruel, image of God.
Traditional Christian theology does not consider the probability of intelligent life in other places in the universe. This leads to additional shortcomings in understanding God or existence and church dogma. An expanded view would not see the centrality of mankind on Earth. This would require a reformulation of the dogma of Jesus as “God’s only son” who had to be killed on this little Earth – and possibly on other civilized planets – as the proper means for the salvation of those humans or other beings who believe in him.
With the concept of evolution and the probability of intelligent life in many other places in the universe, the concepts of the inherent sinfulness of humans and the need for Jesus, God’s “only” son, to be sacrificed for the salvation of mankind become untenable when taken verbatim. Exegesis is unsatisfactory in this case. Are all intelligent species in the universe inherently sinful, or only some or only the humans on Earth? Does Jesus have to be crucified once on each inhabited planet in the universe for the respective salvation of the subject species, ongoing through the ages as these civilizations appear?
“Christian tradition is presented as being based on Jewish tradition only.”
The Christian view, based only on
the Jewish tradition and on God’s love only for
“The image of God as the father.”
The Christian image of God as a fatherly spiritual essence is too anthropomorphically limited and does not apply to the Darwinian pre-human phase of animal nature that was without fairness and compassion. Also, too much of our own human lives is still bound up in Darwinian struggle. In sum, the father-image is simplistic and anthropomorphic. God’s ways are above human ways, not precluding our joyful, sometimes fearful, and often grateful admiration of His universe and our existence therein.
“Theodicy (for example, the Job question) generally arrives at positive conclusions.”
The problem of theodicy remains unresolved. The universe is too large and complex, and too far beyond human understanding, to suggest a basically human notion of God. On Earth, there is too much senseless destruction and cruelty. What is suggested is the greatest reverence for the grandiose spiritual force of existence, the greatest gratitude to be felt by those who were blessed in their lives, and humble acceptance of their fate within the fabric of Creation by those who were not blessed, possibly even abandoned.
“Divine predeterminism (and providence) is assumed by many believers.”
As discussed before, the assumption of Divine predeterminism is in contradiction to Divine free will, ongoing Creation, and scientific understanding. In sum, this argument is one of anthropomorphic intellectualism, inadequate for an understanding of the essence of existence.
“Trinity is a central concept. There is a Devil as a God-opposed spiritual force.”
Thoughts or theological statements about the Trinity or the Devil are anthropomorphisms. One cannot see but one spiritual essence of existence, God.
“Jesus, God’s only son, taught a God-father image, the superiority of humane needs over the Jewish Law, the importance of the spirit of the Law over the letter of the Law, the ethics of compassionate brotherly love, and respect for the meek, the poor, and the peace-makers. Jesus performed miracles and sacrificed himself for mankind’s salvation.”
Christian ethics are the highest expression of religious ethics on Earth and the greatest comfort to the suffering. However, Jesus’ life and teaching, as recorded, must be understood in its own time and cultural setting. How else could it have been effective? This leaves open the option to find a deeper interpretation of Christ’s spirit and teaching which can still be valid in our time and our cultural setting. The other option is to hope for a new great teacher of mankind, another messiah, as an inspired teacher for our times.
“The Christian ethical demands are absolute, no limitations, or compromises being discussed.”
The absolute demands give Christian ethics their ideal purity. But the fundamentalist lack of guidance regarding the necessary limitations of ethical standards in practical life is the main shortcoming of Christian ethical teaching (as of any other code of ethics).
Christian ethical teachings are, generally, accepted as the highest ideal for all mankind. However, as in earlier times so also in our present times, the hard facts of practical life make it necessary to limit ethical behavior. How many asylum-seekers should a country accept? How many migrants in search of a better life should be accepted? Why does Socialism not work, and what do Christians do about that? What do we do about the drug users and other abusers of themselves and society, who just want to pursue self-realization? To what degree do we mitigate the problems and accommodate the wishes of all citizens in the ever more crowded world and in the big cities of the international community, globally interconnected by instant and pervasive electronic communication? Christian ethics are a necessary ideal, but in the practical world we are helplessly left to our own compromising judgment.
“The concept of ‘soul’ as the essence of the human being and immortality is of central importance.”
The concept of “soul” is fraught with much philosophical and theological burden accumulated during the last two thousand years. There have been various interpretations of this concept of soul throughout history by various thinkers. The “soul” included either all the mental capabilities of an individual or only the moral and emotional part thereof. In any event, the soul was seen as the immortal essence of an individual. A view of the soul as a “homunculus” is no longer realistic. The time may be ripe for what is called these days a ”paradigm shift”.
Modern science and neuropsychology have left us insecure about the traditional concept of “soul”. Would this not have to include all the thought capabilities and memories inherent in an individual’s brain? These capabilities grow and fade with age or health, just as the brain does. Is the soul the essence of personality, which many people wish they could change, which can be changed by accidents, psycho-pharmaceutical products, and brain surgery, and which also changes with age? Does the soul include the valuation of thoughts, subject to experience, learning, and cultural conditions? Is the soul the essence of what consciousness causes to appear in everybody’s mind as “I” and what looks out from oneself to the surrounding existence through individual consciousness (explained in the author’s essay on “Mental Creativity” as a virtual phenomenon resulting from the remembrance of thoughts and perceptions)? We must accept that an individual is defined by the totality of his or her mental capabilities and behavior patterns, changing not only with learning but also with aging and health, and with the individual’s momentary focus.
Does this mental totality of an
individual have eternal life? Can
biological functions live independently of their biological base? Why should the universe want to collect and
conserve such a multitude of remnants of past human existences on Earth, from
all people through pre-history and history, from Bushmen to Inuit, from New
Yorkers to monks on
Anybody who has had a “near-death experience” knows that the elements of time and corporeality lose their meaning when the experience of going beyond existence sets in. Therefore, I see death, while momentary and final in physical terms, as the transition into a “timeless” mental phase. What do we know about the essence of time? In gratefulness, I can say that I experienced this phase as indescribably harmonious and peaceful.
“Sin or good deeds, judgment, and punishment or redemption form the important structure of Christian life and afterlife.”
The view of existence comprising ongoing Creation, natural evolution, and human existence in the universe leads to questioning the validity of a Christian life’s structure based solely on sin or good deeds, judgment, and punishment or redemption in afterlife. More emphasis on the unique human potential and opportunities in Creation in the pursuit of values and on mental growth, service and charity, and culture would be indicated. This still leaves Jesus as the bringer of elevated divine revelation to mankind, who even had to accept death rather than surrender to oppressive forces, in order to let mankind keep faith in his mission and gain light for their “souls”.
“The church centers its teaching on human sinfulness, need for loyal faith, possible forgiving, and the afterlife. In the Catholic faith, special importance is given to the role of saints and Mary, and a central significance to priests and their hierarchy. The church’s theology is nature-based, emphasizing the “dignity” of all human life (above other creatures and the environment), contrary to utilitarian or politically totalitarian concepts of personal life. In this sense, Christian doctrine offers a human life supporting potential of religion. (However, all Christian teachings could and were perverted by the church and sects)”.
There is a close connection between the following religious and dogmatic concepts and views in the Christian churches:
* Ethical and moral laws are based on the commandments of God to mankind.
* God is the supreme judge, rewarding the good and punishing the bad.
* Sin, guilt, punishment, or redemption and grace are the central themes of human existence and are the basic mechanism of life and afterlife.
* The problem of theodicy – the observation that so many horrors, senseless destructions, and wasted lives occur and that God does not visibly reward all good people and does not punish all bad people in this life – is unresolved.
* There is expectation of a judgment in the afterlife and of following reward or punishment.
Considering the universe and evolution, the God-image of the strict judge appears anthropomorphically narrow and inadequate. Are the concepts of judgment and afterlife really necessary for a life guided by values, for charity in society, for a “God-pleasing” and fulfilled life, for comfort in distress and guidance or restraint in success?
Ethics and values can be seen as part of the Divine Creation, as an option for humanity with its freedom and responsibility to pursue its own course through existence. Injustice may have to be accepted as part of Creation as it is, since it follows the laws of nature and is affected by random or probabilistic events. The strength to counteract and control abuse may also be found in this view of existence.
The attempt to see Divine compensation for each human action, through Divine intervention in the course of the world or in a summary way after some periods of time, is as inappropriate to expect as it is unproved by observation. The transfer of compensation to an afterlife is humanly understandable but appears simplistic. The necessity of somebody’s sacrifice (Jesus’ or a saint’s) in compensation for other individuals’ sins would let God appear as anthropomorphically trading in punishment and reward (and definitely not as the loving father). One should assume that God’s ways are above human understanding.
“The church’s hierarchy is often narrowly focused and projects a pompous appearance.”
Luther saw what is still
apparent: many problems of the Catholic church come from
To date, no religious (or worldly) organization has escaped this problem. This is especially deplorable in view of the high ideals of the Christian faith and the need for an ever-higher view of the spiritual force behind existence as the human mind progresses.
In addition, the clergy of all denominations face the problems of the limits of ethics, as discussed before. This leads to the clergy supporting odd, impractical, or cruel schemes, while at the same time claiming ethical purity. Although this often is understandable in personal terms, it should not be done in the name of God or his representatives on Earth.
Overall, one should not overlook the “silent majority” of the numerous clergymen and members of religious orders who do humble works of charity and unselfish goodness in the service of the needy, often in loneliness and harsh self-denial, without raising dogmatic or public questions about it.
A.3.2. Summary of The Modern “Scientific” View – and Its Proposed Expansion
* Creation, defined as the beginning of existence, cannot be explained since, by definition, there can be no knowledge of anything antecedent. Consequently, the origin of the basic forces, the laws of nature, and the selection of the natural constants cannot be explained either.
* Since the beginning of existence, everything has been in a dynamic evolution, either through gradual changes or through the occurrence of random events and the subsequent selection of the fittest.
* In view of the preceding two statements, the assumption of a spiritual essence still active in existence is speculation without practical significance and is possibly misleading, as shown by many negative religious behaviors throughout history.
* In view of the ultimate end of the universe, there is no visible meaning in existence. With evolution progressing by what happens and is viable, there is no purpose or goal in general existence either.
* There is specific purpose, however, in natural drives that want to be fulfilled. There is self-chosen purpose in goal-oriented societies, whether to expand their turf, build empires, or reach religious goals. There is culturally established purpose in modern societies, where everybody wants to get ahead in life, enjoy it as best he or she can, and possibly find distinction or fame in public service or unselfish deeds.
* One’s own values are determined largely by the values of the culture one lives in.
* Ethics evolved as a means for improving survival rates. For humans, ethics is a combination of genetically given responses, education, cultural habits, and practical concerns – all helping to make life more bearable or enjoyable.
Since the time of Thales of Miletus (600 BC), science has progressed in explaining aspects of existence in scientific terms that were previously explained by religious beliefs. This encourages scientists to postulate that all of existence can, sooner or later, be explained by science.
Science runs up against three limitations – the explanation of the beginning of existence (“Creation”), the explanation of the timing or delays of natural evolution, and the explanation of the chosen direction in the occurrences of evolution, human cultural development, and personal destiny.
Furthermore, the probabilistic or random character of much of natural evolution and history allows science to provide explanations only in hindsight; it does not allow science to make good predictions.
This limitation of the scientific view necessarily leads the searching mind to thoughts about the force behind Creation and behind a possible control of evolution in time, direction, history, and personal destiny.
The first observation in that direction is the abstract character of all existence manifesting itself by nothing more than fields of the vacuum – with even the subatomic particles possibly being nothing else but miniature or circular waves (strings) in and of the vacuum. This is a rather intellectual and, ultimately, spiritual concept of existence – more so, when augmented by concepts of quantum mechanics. The control of existence by means of the mysterious forces, laws, and constants of nature and evolution through the interference of random or probabilistic events, is equally intellectual or “spiritual”.
This leads to an intellectual or “spiritual” view of existence in the universe, further supported by observing the human realm of thought, emotions, and values and by incorporating these human aspects into the concept of the essence of existence.
Regarding the meaning and purpose in life, closer observation indicates a value matrix for purpose in life (see prior discussion):
Social and altruistic purpose
Pleasure/aesthetics related purpose
Service and Charity
Culture and Arts
Positive Significance in Society
A large segment of mankind and most of us during many phases of our lives are struggling along without ever getting beyond the “basic level”. Most of our middle class and most people in the developed nations stay on the “median level”. Few individuals in any culture dedicate their spare time and resources to the pursuit of the “upper-level” objectives. Many of us live in a combination of all three directions of orientation on all three levels.
Comments Regarding a Universe Without God: What Meaning, Purpose, or Ethics?
Have the above chapters proven the existence of God and explained the meaning of life? Did the discussion of theodicy leave doubts? What would be left in a view of existence without the belief in a God? Does an atheist – “agnostic” – see “meaning” in existence?
Many agnostics are susceptible to superstition, yoga, or pseudo-transcendental experiences of the “mind” and the cults that thrive on those. Life’s meaning can become anything for the atheist, from “being yourself” to Scientology. The more reasonable atheist may find science to be the only source of insight into existence. Science alone, however, can find no meaning in existence. This leaves the options of emotional or self-chosen meanings. In all seriousness, a person can choose a meaning without being fully convinced of its ultimate truth. A person can dedicate his or her life to a cause (and there are many) or to his ethnic clan without logical proof of the necessity to do so or without belief in a Divine order requiring to do so.
“Purpose” is somewhat different from “meaning”. What can an atheist (and what does factual science) say about the purpose of existence? With evolution being driven only by whatever genetic changes happened to occur, and whatever was then viable to continue existing, science cannot see a goal-driven “purpose” in general existence. In the case of humans, though, evolution has taken a direction toward the development of the mind, including the development of values and cultures. A human observer of this unusual development in the universe can voluntarily decide to support such evolution or decide only to take advantage of it. Support would consist in pursuing mental development and striving for human values in personal life and in society. Taking personal advantage of humanity’s accomplishments may not be helpful in further developing human potential; it may even be counterproductive to such development.
While science does not find purpose in general existence, science obviously observes the specific purpose being pursued by all living beings in fulfilling their natural drives and seeking well-being. Also, there is a self-chosen purpose in goal-oriented societies: whether to reach religious goals, build empires, or just expand their turf. There is culturally established purpose in modern societies, where everybody wants to get ahead in life, enjoy it as best he or she can, and possibly find distinction or fame in public service or unselfish deeds. For an individual, the degree of intellectual or emotional satisfaction derived from a particular approach will determine the approach to take, and this often changes from moment to moment. That is the way most people act, whether they are religious or not. The satisfaction of such personal preferences and emotional needs is all that remains of the atheist’s meaning and purpose of life. To the extent that these needs are on the same genetically given ethical base as those of everybody else, such a position may be acceptable. It becomes questionable whenever it is an “all-for-me”, a “cosa nostra”, or an “all-for-my-people” – even in religious terms as now quite often among the Muslims. When only the striving for money, power, and pleasure remains, it can become devastating for society and the culture of humanity.
There is one more correcting influence – the natural drive to improve one’s rank in the pack, one’s standing in society. Scheming or brute force are approaches to reach rank and public recognition of personal value. Gaining public approval, respect, even gratefulness are other approaches. In our democratic society, this need for public recognition tends to correct personal behavior and move it toward the commonly accepted values, even when such corrective forces are not derived from religious or ideological conviction.
In a more general sense, one can observe that most ethical behavior is not philosophically founded, but culturally learned. In other words, one’s own ethical values are largely determined by the culture one lives in. Thereby, atheist individuals – as everybody else – generally pursue the ethical standards of their culture as a matter of habit, whether in corrupt selfishness in one culture or in philanthropic generosity in another.
In a reasoned approach to ethics in an atheist view of existence, ethical standards, to be valid, do not have to be promulgated by a God through inspired saints or priests (for example, the Ten Commandments). The need for ethical standards can be derived from observation of the world and an interpretation of its needs. Ethical norms may be seen as commensurate with human civilization and the unique opportunities for human society in an otherwise cruel world.
As one pursues these thoughts and looks at a world without Divine commandments and without Divine judgment on Earth or in the afterlife, but a world with human freedom and responsibility, the domain of normative ethics becomes a concern of philosophy, sociology, psychology, and the practical needs of society. After all, everybody wants “law and order”. The developments of a public educational system and a system of civil and criminal law in the developed countries has long demonstrated this. The recent public discussion of “values” and morality in all spheres of life and education is further evidence of this trend. However, in a strictly intellectual and rational environment, and under the stresses of society, these discussions hold the danger of gliding into utilitarianism and, at worst, Darwinistic ruthlessness, as demonstrated in the course of the century just ended, whether by the Nazis, the Communists, the bombardment of Dresden, or the fighting factions in the ongoing regional struggles around the world.
In atheist civilizations, where the link between God-image and ethics is missing, rational ethical theory and rational ethical rules can be based only on personal or mutual benefit. In practical life, unfortunately, many people seem to be inclined to give the highest priority to personal benefit. This leads to a reduced feeling of obligation to participate in a development of existence aimed at benefit for all. Excessive selfishness makes people ruthless and cynical. There is a specific danger, if personal benefit is seen in terms of wealth and power and if both are obtained. As a matter of experience, wealthy and powerful people become irrational, with a tendency to decadency and aberrations, such as Nero, Stalin, or many successful businessmen and, more so, their heirs have shown.
Philosophically, things look a little different when human “happiness” is seen in a broader sense than power-and-pleasure. In that case, the full spectrum of human emotions has to be considered. Human happiness is predicated on a number of natural instincts or behavior patterns which are the foundation of most human emotions in all people. For example, parents generally do love their children and enjoy their children’s well-being. People generally feel loyalty to their family, group, tribe, or nation. Most people are happier if they have something “useful” to do, even if it is only prevailing in professional or political rivalry. Some people do enjoy dedicating themselves to an idealistic cause.
Therefore, the purpose of a fulfilled existence in terms of happiness is still, in addition to simple pleasures, the extension and application of one’s knowledge and capabilities, caring for other human beings, the improvement, or refinement of the physical and human environment. A fulfilled life may also contain coping with the temptations of success, but more often with limitations, suffering, failure, and death.
However, the sacrifices demanded from each individual for the benefit of society by atheist societies – for example, Communism – are in contradiction to the interests of an atheist individual. Therefore, substitute forces have to be developed: Glorification of class loyalty, a personality cult for leaders, glorification of one’s native country, utopia on one side and threats of an inhuman world on the other side. Where this fails, brute power of those interested in maintaining the system is all too often applied.
It is interesting that the materialistic capitalism of the humanely idealistic Western democracies corresponds more to an atheist interpretation of the world than the “scientific materialism” of Communism or Socialism, with their idealistic goals of assistance for the disenfranchised. In Western democracy, a balance of the self-interest of all individuals or interest groups leads to demands for ethical behavior.
After all, one should not overlook that all human ethical rules are based on the common, genetically given proto-ethical forces of caring for kin, reciprocity, and group loyalty, subsequently expanded or enforced by thought, learning, cultural pressure, or habit.
Rational thought may claim that these natural ethical forces are projected by religious people into their God-image. Even when denying Divine commandments, one can argue – with the world and human nature having been created by God – that the natural ethical forces express God’s intent in Creation. Consequently, atheist and religious ethical norms converge to some degree.
The absence of a religious base
for ethics and the dangers of utilitarianism make necessary a humanely acceptable
formulation of ethical standards and their public enforcement. As shown in the atheist societies of the
communist world, the genetic ethical force of clan loyalty, expanded by
indoctrination into nationalism or Socialism, may emotionally substitute for
religious commitment to unselfishness.
However, in the absence of such ideals and governmental enforcement,
when nothing balances personal temptation, individual abuse becomes
pervasive. The new
Do all “values” suffer in an atheist society from a lack of foundation in religion or ideology? Possibly not. Pursuit of the values of “mental growth” and “culture” are among the most important (and most pleasant) gifts of nature to mankind; surprisingly, though, neither is founded in or connected to a particular religion. In the Christian religion, the often excessive burden of artistic decoration of the churches and of priestly appearance is in contradiction to religious teaching, thinly justified as being gifts of the people to God. The actual root of such artistic decorations lies in the high valuation of art in people’s minds.
Mental growth usually is restrained – if not suppressed – by religious hierarchies anxious to defend the purity of their teaching and their position. Therefore, societies with weak religious hierarchies or restrictions on thought were historically more creative than the hierarchically dominated ones (see, for instance, the Greeks versus the Jews in antiquity or the Italians versus the Spaniards during the Renaissance).
There is also the observation that mental growth leads to the weakening of moral standards. As shown in the earlier chapters, intellectual analyses of gray zones in value judgments have proven to be the servants of the desires of the analyzers and, consequently, are often quite destructive. All caution is justified. However, this severe fault of intellectuality cannot be a justification for the inhibition of all mental growth and inquiry into the wonders of the universe and our existence.
If the foundation of life’s meaning and human values is not clear, if religious or philosophical insight is not clear, if the limits of values and the limits of ethics are not clear either – then how does one proceed in daily life? Practical life and the need to give some consistency to the course of one’s own life require that one take a stand, that one decide what one wants to stand for.
A final comment on atheism: Things look a bit different, depending on whether one sits comfortably at one’s desk analyzing the world in intellectual terms, or one is in the grips of sorrow or fear for a loved one. Deeply felt prayers to the forces of destiny, to God, are all that presents hope to us humans when we are in deep trouble. And what, in moments of great joy, about destiny and the world? Where would gratitude go?
A.3.3. Summary of the View of People in Practical Life, Tempered by Human Sensitivity
– and Its Proposed Expansion
* There must be some spiritual forces, some God, behind the creation and the grandiose evolution of this fantastic world.
* You better show proper devotion and respect toward these forces, toward God, lest they or He turn against you.
* One can try to appeal to God in situations of need, hoping that He will help. When things get tough, most people do turn to God for help. But you better do your own best to improve matters wherever you can.
* The churches, with their imagery and ritual, are good for some people. Therefore, let them be. Women are more religious than men and do more good deeds!
* The veneration of images or of saints, and the belief in miracles, is good for some people.
* The dogmas of the churches are seldom understandable, are very theoretical, and are important only to church people.
* In the practical world, you cannot be very theoretical about “values”. What is needed is some of the old-fashioned “wisdom”, to know the right way in complexity and to have good judgment, along with a bit of human sensitivity.
* Ethics, especially Christian ethics, are good. The world should follow them. Oneself should follow them, too. There are practical limits, however. One has to take care of oneself and one’s family first. One has some right to one’s own life and, after all the struggle, the right to some enjoyment of life. Only saints do otherwise.
* Countries, nations, and cultures all have a right to preserve themselves – while providing help to others in their respective territories.
How should this view be expanded?
At the base of all these statements is a feeling of awe in admiring the grandiose universe. Also at the base is a feeling that there is a spiritual essence. These views may well have been the base of all religious thought and inspiration for mankind. From there on, thinkers and priests may have attempted to provide logical and systematic answers and coherent systems of thought – leading to the known results.
There is a conflict between providing for the religious and emotional needs of the people and seeking actual truth. Could it not be that the ultimate truth about the spiritual essence of Creation is too complex, too big for humans to absorb, too far removed from the human world?
There may be a need for a religion that allows for various levels of sophistication and providing for various levels of emotional needs.
Practical people are quite aware of the limits of ethics. Most people are humanly sensitive, often the humble people more so than the rich and the powerful. Humble people readily understand the need for charitable help given beyond reason. But they also see a right to their own modest enjoyment of life.