From child to belief in God
I was raised in a non-religious household, and enrolled in a Catholic primary school for my first three years. Our class attended the on-site church weekly and was taught how to pray. We were encouraged to believe in the Christian God, and the authority of the school and rituals confirmed the importance of belief. The fear of God had been instilled in me. I believed.
I would pray at night, even if my family never did. It seemed to me, at that young age, that the concepts taught in church were of the utmost importance; if God existed as I was taught, I needed to believe and I needed to obey. What could be more important than learning and obeying the will of God? Given the ceremony, the ritual, the unanimity of belief at my school, rejecting the existence of God never occurred to me.
We moved town and I left my school. That was the end of my religious influence. I was 8. The next time I thought about the existence of God again was when I was 14. At the time I was internally torn about what I believed. I was sympathetic with non-belief, but I was scared that if I was wrong, I might go to Hell.
Eventually, I rejected Pascal’s Wager and personally embraced the atheist label. It wasn’t much longer before I found existence of the Christian God to be an absurd idea. Without going into detail, I find the idea of a personal god to be anthropocentric and the belief in one to be the result of existential need, rather than the result of rational thought or extraordinary evidence.
These days I am comfortable with the label “atheist” in that it means I do not believe in any gods. A theistic God, which is involved in human affairs, his/her creation, and has a holy text for humans to read, is sometimes called a personal god. I believe that a personal god does not exist. In this respect I am a hard-atheist (asserting the belief that god does not exist). But wait, there’s more…
On the other hand, while I don’t believe in an impersonal god, I don’t believe one doesn’t exist. This would make me a soft-atheist in this respect. Deism (the idea that god exists and created the world but is not involved in human affairs), is a far more reasonable view than theism. Most people that believe in god are theists, not deists, but I do not find deism to be an absurd view.
Overall, I don’t believe in any gods, and we could quibble on my intuitions about theism and deism, the larger point is that I don’t hold a believe in any god any longer. I consider the default position with respect to any theory to be the null hypothesis: a skeptical non-acceptance of entities and concepts until a reasonable amount of evidence has been produced in their favour. As a result, I consider a-theism to be the default position, one which I hold.
New-Atheism and anti-theism
For a time, I enjoyed reading and watching the four horsemen of New-Atheism (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, & Dan Dennett). Their critiques of religion were a welcome sound to my ears. One of the results of new atheism was a certain number of atheists that I would describe as angry.
Angry atheists would also insult the person who held religious beliefs. I do not share many individual atheists’ fundamental disdain for individuals that happen to be religious. This is assuming they leave me alone. Many people I like are religious or spiritual, and I don’t see the value in criticising them personally for their false (?) beliefs. I am all for critique bad ideas, but personal insults are not helpful or compassionate.
I have no problem with others as long as they do not impose their values upon me.
Anti-theism is the view that theism is bad. Hitchens was famously anti-theistic. I agree that some theologies are bad, and I will not hold back from criticising a bad idea if there is one. I am therefore anti-theistic, if the theology produces bad outcomes/actions/will, but I am not against theism necessarily. Theism sometimes produces good outcomes. (Think about the charity some individuals do due to their theistic beliefs; think about the murders that are not committed by reformed killers due to their theistic beliefs).
Whether theism on the whole produces good or bad, I will leave to the scholars (Hitchens makes a good case that it overwhelmingly evil). Regardless, theism is here and many theists exist! I am not against theistic people per se. A theist’s ideas that do not get imposed on me is none of my business. I have no desire to inform a theist that (I think) they believe false ideas.
What about secular morality?
My atheistic values led me towards a value for secularism and skeptical thinking, which has remained a constant in my value system ever since. Around the time of my secular and New-Atheist awakening, I became interested in ideas like secular morality: I didn’t know it at the time, but I was flirting with positions like ethical naturalism, which seems a common idea amongst atheists.
As with most the New-Atheists, I do accept that notions of pro-social behaviour evolved among our social species through natural selection. As such, we don’t need to believe in God to be “good” (behaving in a way that is pro-social). We are going to do that which we desire, regardless of whether we believe in God, and we humans desire –on average– that which is conducive to the survival of our species. Of course there may be individuals that only do “good” things because they believe in God (and thank God for their belief!), but the point remains: actions are determined by desires themselves, atheism won’t result in “bad” acts necessarily.
The New-Atheists go further, however. Beyond the claim that we humans use “moral language” and make up “moral rules”, which can be described and explained by evolution. New-Atheists implicitly (and often explicitly) claim objective moral obligations.
A short aside rejecting secular morality
Sam Harris claims that there could be a empirically definable “correct” way to act/live/be in order to accomplish human-flourishing/eudaimonia, but can this way of acting be called “moral”? Even if there was a specific set of actions that were conducive to human-flourishing/eudaimonia for individuals or society, it begs the question: “why value this outcome?” It might seem imprudent not to value human-flourishing, but what makes it necessary? Either: 1) it is necessary by nature of there being no ability but to value human-flourishing; or 2) there are metaphysical consequences for not valuing human-flourishing. If Harris is not claiming either of these two things, then under what definition can he call these acts “moral”?
For point two: if the consequences of not being “moral” are not metaphysical, but merely social, or otherwise empirical, then we are free to choose to be “immoral”: there is no obligation to be moral. And for point one: this is not the case since we see examples of people that do not value human-flourishing, and therefore it is possible to not value them. Without being obligatory in a metaphysical sense, “morality” is purely opinions, assertions, desires, and wills.
To me, the New-Atheist desire to build a secular morality is partially sincere and partially in defence of religious critiques of atheism’s inherent immorality. I am not an ethical naturalist. Atheists, and all people, seem to share anthropocentric views and are driven by a desire to externalise their subjective values into universal truths. Afterall, what imperative is there to comply with “moral” rules or traits (once discovered) unless they are externally true? If none, then they are simply values that one prefers, and this is unacceptable to the fragile human ego. Nothing is different about this “secular morality” than with regular moral realism.
Existential questions persist
While, I can articulate these critiques now, not long ago I was still confusingly concerned with questions like: “what is the meaning of life?”, “how can I justify having values if none objectively exist?”, and “what should I do?” While peers and books gave me the following answers: “there is no objective meaning to life, the question is not one that has an objective answer”, “you can’t justify your values beyond simply asserting them personally — there is nothing external to your human mind to appeal to”, and “the question is what will you do, not what should you do”, for a time, these answers left me unsatisfied.
To moral nihilism
I have, in time, come to accept them. Unfortunately, that is all there is. My initial dissatisfaction with moral nihilism, I believe, was due to an unfair expectation that I had previously been given: that there should be some meaning to life, objective values, and external obligations.
This situation reminds me of the realisation that Santa Claus does not exist; Santa doesn’t exist, even if –as an adult– you would wish that presents would arrive at your house once a year for free. This doesn’t mean you can’t have presents on Christmas day, it just means that you just have to buy your own (and presents for others, presumably). I wanted to have objective meaning, but this desire was unrealistic. Like a spoilt child, I had been given the promise of candy everyday, only to have it taken away one day. I felt a loss; I felt that I deserved my candy. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been given it in the first place? Was it ever beneficial to me?
While I might be predisposed to desire an objective meaning to life, or to have my values be backed up by an external force (like God) that condones them, or to know what I ought to do at any given moment, I will not hold ideas that I intellectually believe to be false. I want my opinions to accord to the facts, rather than believe that the facts adhere to my beliefs.
I consider myself an amoralist. The word is synonymous with moral nihilism, but it avoids some unnecessary confusion. Amoralism is the rejection of morality as a thesis: I operate my life without the premise that morality is a real, objectively true, and mind-independent thing that obligates humans to specific behaviour or character trait.
When I say I am a nihilist, people ask me “Why don’t you kill yourself?”, or if I am being hyperbolic, or attention-seeking. As a moral nihilist, and existential nihilist, I don’t want to kill myself, and I am not being hyperbolic when I say that life is objectively meaningless (“In what sense would life be mind-independently meaningful?”). As far as attention-seeking, I’d rather get to the point, and discuss the ideas themselves. Amoralism avoids these detours of conversation and unnecessary confusions, and allows me to label the views that I currently hold sincerely.