Answering a Stupid Quiz Part 3

This is the third installment of the atheist quiz

6. Do you believe free will to be illusory? If so, can the punishment of crimes be ethically justified (and does the word “ethical” have any real meaning)?
In other words, is free will a real thing?  A few minutes ago, I decided I wanted some coffee, so I poured myself a cup, and am now drinking it.  I suppose I was free to do that.  I understand that this question is designed to lock respondents into some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but I consider questions like these to be armchair matters that don’t really contribute much to honest debate.

To address the second part of the question, is the questioner really asking if we can justify immorality because of free will?  That seems absurd, but I guess I’d take my version of ethics and morality over what the Christian bible encourages, for instance, justification for keeping slaves, sacrificing and murdering babies, women, and children, genital mutilation, and slaughtering members of the neighboring village.  At least I can feel good about treating people as well as I can without supernatural intervention that commands me to be bad to other humans.

That’s all I’m going to respond to this question, because I think the questioner presupposes Christianity provides a moral highground.  I think that Christians had better start appologizing for all the harm they’ve done to the world and others in the name Christianity before they start asserting that their religion gives them any sort of monopoly on morality.

7. Does objective morality exist? If so, what is its source…and how do you define “objective”? If not, do you concede that concepts like “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are nothing more than social fads, and that acts of violence and oppression must be regarded merely as differences of opinion?
Social fads?  I don’t think I’d characterize it in terms of “social fads”.  That’s reductionist, and I don’t think most reasonable people, regardless of political or religious position, would be so bold as to characterize how we treat people as a fad.  There seem to be reasonable and logical ways to behave that result in moral behavior, such as the desire to minimize harm.

We do have the capacity to collect information and exercise empathy, and all that is perfectly explainable without referring to the supernatural.

Maximizing well-being also seems to contribute to this paradigm.  This is objective to the extent that we can define universal well-being for all humanity, which is a big task, and might not be an all-to-useful exercise.

We create frameworks for justice because most cultures agree that it is best for everyone if we have a collection of rules that minimizes harm, attempts to maximize well-being, and gives people some amount of flexibility to commit errors.  There may be illogical implementations of these frameworks, or tendencies to favor the well-being for some people or groups over others, but that is a function of societal acceptance of such a paradigm.  Societies that refuse to accept that particular families are chosen by God to rule over the country are more inclined to abolish or disempower monarchy.  But clearly, what’s acceptable to any given society is fluid and changes a lot over time.

As far as whether there is objective morality, I don’t know.  I think people tend to care about certain things, and those things vary greatly across different cultures.  Therefore, there does seem to be subjectivity in how we discern right from wrong, but this is not unique for atheists.  There is a great deal of disagreement over a number of matters in and out of the church – think war, abortion, civil rights, slavery, etc.

I think that some of the morality espoused in the bible is a good enough reason to reject the bible as a moral authority, so if that’s what the question is getting at, then I’d probably err on the side of there not being objective morality, because well-being doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone.

Fairness, equality, and justice are relative to the culture, and this has been true forever.  There is a self-defeating mechanism that exists for humans, in that if we kill everyone, then there won’t be any more humans, so there would have always been some logical, or self-correcting mechanism to recognize this.

By the way, fairness is not exclusively human.  We see empathy, sharing, and non-violent behavior across many species, including bonobos, who behave remarkably similar to humans.

8. In what terms do you define the value of human life? Is the life of a human child more or less valuable, for example, than that of an endangered species of primate?
There is a biological reason why parents protect their children:  parents are biologically responsible for their children’s lives until their children are old enough to defend for themselves.  This is not unique to humans, nor are humans the most zealous defenders of their children’s lives – there are plenty of animals that are equally or more defensive of their offspring’s safety than humans.  We seem to have inclinations to create rules (laws) that serve to create a shared social responsibility for children’s well-being, and that is somewhat unique to humans, although we see plenty of species that will work to the well-being of infants they did not parent.  These behaviors are reinforced by various chemical and hormonal pathways across many species.

If I’m erring on the side of there not being objective morality, I think it’s hard to answer whether a human child is more or less valuable than an animal of any other species.  Certainly, humans tend to give more value to human children than almost any other living organism, and this is quite explainable via our biology and hormones.

Basically, I don’t think this is a very useful question, because I don’t see a lot of “Sophie’s Choice” situations where we have to quickly give value to humans and other species, and then use that value in terms of how to save both.  I don’t see humans as more important or special than other species, except to say that humans seem to have capabilities that other species don’t have as a result of a larger brain.  But there are some species that have abilities that humans don’t have, such as the ability to fly or how well they see in the dark.

9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief? If not, what specifically makes atheism immune to these influences?
I think that atheism doesn’t specify any rigid codes.  A good atheist ought to be pragmatic, looking for best practices based on observed outcomes.  We recognized that slavery and genocide are wrong, so we don’t do it anymore.  The bible never corrects those errors it committed.

Wishful thinking, presumably, is the absence of honestly evaluating a claim.  If your hypothesis doesn’t agree with reality, it’s wrong (paraphrasing Richard Feynman).  So, yes, atheists might be hopeful that they can cure cancer via scientific strategies, but it doesn’t make absolute claims that science cures these things the way that religion does.

I think humans have a tendency to be over-confident at times, and are very prone to committing all sorts of moral and logical errors.  For some, this inclination decreases as they get older, and for some, this inclination never goes away.  So, to the extent that religious people engage in wishful thinking, that is simply an artifact of their human errancy.

We have methods that demonstrate themselves to be effective at distinguishing fact from fantasy, and it ought to be our obligation to learn and practice those methods the best we can.


10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity? If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?
I think that’s an appeal to popularity, which is a logical fallacy.  Every single person in the world can believe something, and they can all be wrong.  Just because religion has been a staple over the course of human evolution doesn’t prove anything either.

If religion were harmful to the extent that it were causing too many deaths, then either religion would go away, or people would go extinct.

Religion has not been harmful enough to cause humans to go extinct, but there’s still plenty of time for that.

11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?*
No.  It’s profoundly irrational, yet we do it all the time.  We have the capacity for empathy, and the ability to consider and estimate potential outcomes

based on behavior.  If I don’t push someone out of the way of an oncoming bus, they might die.  Some people might be more inclined to self-sacrifice than others, and I would leave it to psychologists to answer why.  It still doesn’t prove God.


12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true? What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?*
Been there, done that.  Religion and Christianity don’t work for me, because practicing it requires a consistent dishonesty and suspension of logic that I’m no longer willing to do.

If it happened that Christianity was true, I would be quite puzzled, because there are boatloads of immorality that go all throughout the bible, and countless deaths have come because of it, including the religious crusades, the Spanish inquisition, the death and destruction of native people in America, the discouragement of condom use in Africa, the cruel and unusual torture to which homosexuals have been subjected to over the millenia, etc, etc, etc.

I don’t know how one can reconcile the evil that Christianity has caused over history, and I reject the bible as a source of moral authority.  Cherry picking phrases does not an ideology make.  Just because something in the bible, or something that religion says, seems correct for our situation, that does not mean the whole thing is correct.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

2 thoughts on “Answering a Stupid Quiz Part 3”

  1. The argument about free will is more significant that your response indicates. This all came about when it was shown that our bodies were preparing to act before we consciously made a decision to act (by as much as a half second of time). So, was free will an illusion? Was something else controlling our actions (instinct, fate, God, the Devil, …)?

    The problem with such arguments is that the assumption is made that free will means conscious free will. This is unfortunate because most of our actions are under our unconscious control (e.g. you drive to work without once thinking about driving), not our conscious control (that is not what consciousness is good at). Most of the decisions we make are made unconsciously and it takes a bit of time for our conscious minds to get the memo.

    Our criminal justice system would be thrown into chaos if we assumed that no one had free will because then everyone could claim that the “Devil made me do it” and escape responsibility. But the law now distinguishes between acts with and without malicious intent, so it seems to have those bases covered. Crimes of passion versus crimes of deliberation are punished differently and the system is designed not to cure the perpetrator but to discourage others from committing wrong acts. Whether that discouragement is conscious or unconscious is not the point. We could, however, take a good long look at criminal justices systems to see whether or not they are effective, but that has little to do with the existence of free will I believe.


    1. Thank you very much for your response – honestly, I have a hard time with the philosophical arguments, because I’m not convinced the matter of free will is all that important, as far as defining a position on this matter. It seems like a person doesn’t need to take one side or another to argue whether they are a theist or an atheist. For instance, if God knows everything, that implies you don’t have free will. If there is no personal God, then you’re as free as you want to be, assuming there aren’t underlying or unknown physical, chemical, or hormonal constraints.

      Some people seem to have different levels over their free will than others – consider people with OCD or other mental pathologies or illness. I’m sure that when you get down to the nitty gritty philosophical/materialist/naturalist arguments, you might have to take a concrete position on free will. Slavish adherence to a philosophical doctrine is one of my objections to religion in the first place, so I try not to be too concrete about my philosophy, because I might be wrong.


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