I recently appeared in a pre recorded episode of The Culture Monk Live where we discussed the effects of agnosticism on culture. Particularly, did agnosticism destroy western culture? Now, I’m not too sure if western culture has been destroyed. Many aspects of our society have certainly been relegated to the lowest common denominator. The list is actually pretty long. Reality TV, the decline in literature, and communication through 140 characters or less immediately come to mind, but there are many, many more problems. Is this a sign that America is heading the way of Rome, or are these things just the hiccups of a society grappling with the problems post-modernity and advanced consumer technology?
If our society is crumbling before us, are atheists and agnostics to blame?
Has the existential way of life robbed us of the sacred beliefs that we need to create an ordered society?
When people argue that atheism and agnosticism lead to immorality, meaninglessness, and societal degradation, they do so from a viewpoint that insists that you need God or a extra natural order to create positive social conditions. They cannot imagine why an atheist would want to be good, because, from their point of view, good only comes from God. Their first premise is usually, “God must exists, thus . . .,” instead of what it would need to be in order to refute an atheist’s view of morality, “If God doesn’t exist, then . . .”
When I hear a believer begin with the second premise, it is usually followed with the assumption that anything would be permissible: if there is no God, you can do as you please. You can kill, cheat, or steal with cosmic impunity – Enjoy. Despite the insistence that atheists must believe this, it is difficult to find one that does. The only people I have found in my small experience that do believe this were gutter punks that didn’t give a damn about anything – true nihilists. I’m sure they didn’t believe in God, but they were probably too dumb to care either way.
Most atheists and agnostics are confronted with the same moral decisions that believers are. Yet, very few say, “why am I thinking about this? I’m an atheist. I can do whatever I want.” Why is this? From the point of view of the atheist, there was never a good before humanity invented it. God did not literally die. It was belief in him and his transcendental good that died. If this is the case, humanity actually created morality. It is probably something bred into us. It could simply be empathy, which told a different way simply mean, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Does this automatically suggest that morality is completely relative? I don’t think so. If humanity is the creator of morality then it was not an individual effort, but a collective one. This explains why virtues like courage and honor,commandments such as don’t kill and don’t steal, are more or less ubiquitous to all humans. It could also be, from an evolutionary standpoint, that empathy is part of our genetic make up. It is not insane to think that without this trait, humans may have died off long ago.
Do atheists have to decide how to live their life? Of course, but believers do as well. They first have to to accept their parents religion or choose a new one. Then they have to decide if they will follow all the tenants or just some. What does this person do when their religious leader tells them to kill in the name of a higher power? If they have already decided that they must accept every aspect of their religion, they are liable to choose killing. Most atheists and agnostics will never face a choice like this. This is the benefit than secular modes of thinking has brought to our society. A disposition to question, which most atheists and agnostics possess, makes it more difficult for evils to be committed. Disbelief does not encourage amoral thought, it supplies a person with the skepticism often needed to choose the right path.