Pretty Good Reasons to Believe in God Watch: Atheism’s Guilt Problem

What, you say?

Atheists, of all people, surely don’t have a problem with guilt. They can cuss, smoke, and masturbate to their hearts’ content, not feeling morally supervised by disapproving and invisible eyes. They can read any book they want. That’s definitely a kind of freedom. Indeed, it is freedom.

But look again.

One good reason to believe in God, and not be an atheist, has to do with the real problem of what to do with guilt if you aren’t a theist. I’m not talking about small private sins, what to do about them. I’m talking about ones that seriously affect others.

Here’s the problem: If you believe that God is absent from the universe, then that means that suddenly you’re responsible for the whole world, and the direction that it is going. From climate change to how kind you are to your coworkers, to be an atheist means it’s all on you. Theists have outsourced this global problem of responsibility, and when they fail they ask forgiveness of God and quickly return to tiptop. But you, as an atheist, are your own last court of appeal, and if you’re temperamentally a hard judge of yourself, and you see evil in the world and do nothing about it (or even contribute to it), and you have a sense of conscience, you might find that you literally have nowhere to go for absolution. There’s never a moment, if you’re a person with a sense of decency, of being able to abandon your post.

If you are an atheist, in other words, you must carry the full burden of your actions. That means that if you commit adultery, for example, you have to live with the pain that you’ve caused another person for the rest of your life. Beyond apologizing to your spouse, there’s no getting right about it. Atheism thus might well lead you, over time, to become somebody who is very good at emotional splitting and cognitive dissonance, because repeatedly recalling your past actions, and feeling regret for them anew, simply would make your life too painful to think about. 

There’s a reason absolution has a central function in so many religions. People feel the burdens of responsibility and guilt, and feel emotionally blocked by them, and desire sure and powerful forgiveness to move forward. But to be an atheist means forfeiting this source of consolation and psychological cleansing. What the atheist gains at one end (guilt free sensual and intellectual indulgences while in private) he or she would appear to lose at the other end (full responsibility for the pain caused to other people in one’s interpersonal and public actions).

Alas, no rest for the wicked (theist or atheist), but perhaps at least a tad less emotional labour and turmoil for the theist who has given the steering of the world over to God, and feels forgiven by divine love?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Pretty Good Reasons to Believe in God Watch: Atheism’s Guilt Problem

  1. Shahabuddin says:

    I think that you are a very thoughtful person. What you have expressed makes complete sense to me even though I am Muslim and have Islamic beliefs. Are you Jewish?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Shahabuddin:

    No, I’m an agnostic. I’m just thinking aloud at my blog about the God question.

    —Santi

    • Shahabuddin says:

      Fascinating! I read another post of you which was discussing Prof.Gloria Orenstein. She is a very thoughtful person too. I took classes with her and she is Jewish. I just thought that your writings and reasoning are as deep as hers! That is why I asked you a question…

  3. santitafarella says:

    Shahabuddin:

    I went back and looked at the post I made on Prof. Orenstein. I hope it didn’t sound to you too harsh on her.

    When I wrote that particular blog post earlier in the year, I think I may have been a little bit hard on the professor. I can see why she would feel that scientific naturalism and reductionism are emotional dead ends for “overgoing” beings like humans. There are layers of explanation. Humans tell stories, interact, and have emotions. They are not just engaged in empirical approaches to ultimate questions. Having said that, I do think science and rational thinking are crucial tools in our quests for truth.

    And thanks, by the way, for your kind words.

    —Santi

  4. Chris says:

    Hmm… Well, the guilt problem can go in a lot of directions. If I wasn’t a theist, I would not believe in any ultimate Good or Evil in the world. I would only do, basically, what I wanted to do – whatever my passion told me to do at a particular moment. I don’t think I’ve ever had a particular urge to harm someone – unless they had wronged me – but I would not really take much notice if, by consequence, my actions were to negatively effect someone else. I would just rationalize it in my mind by telling myself “guilt is an illusion, because there really is nothing bad or evil to feel guilty about”. I would have sex whenever I wanted with whoever I wanted. And I would probably steal. It would be very much “nature red in tooth and claw” with me.

    But the reason I don’t do these things is not because I’m afraid of being punished – as if some bribery is the only thing holding me back. But it’s because I truly believe in an ultimate Good being who made humans who are most happy when they themselves are good. I also believe the evil action hurts the evil doer much more than whoever is done evil to.

    Again, I would not have these beliefs, were I an atheist. I would instead be an existentialist and try to trick myself into believing things to be meaningful, while knowing that nothing is truly meaningful, in and of itself.

    Existentialism (I’ve tried living it) is one reason that I am not an atheist. Understanding it’s ramifications truly meant – to me – utter madness and despair.

  5. Sez Me! says:

    If you became an atheist and suddenly started doing all those awful things, you’d find yourself a pretty lonely atheist!! At least as far as other atheists are concerned.

    I suppose you were trying to imply that since YOU would act like a conscienceless, arrogant, self-centered asshole, that this must be the way atheists act.

    I suggest you get to know a few atheists. See if you can keep up to their morals and principles. See if they are licentious and sex-maniacs because “nobody is watching them”. Or steal everything in sight because they feel it’s OK to do so.

    You, friend, have a great deal to learn about atheists and atheism. And not a little to learn about your own beliefs as well!

    There is only one YOU in all the universe; you have only ONE life to live. Live it as well as you can – be the best person you know how to be; for your own honour and self respect. Do that and the respect of others will come to you unbidden. Including the respect of religious folks.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Sez Me:

    I think that you are being a bit tough on Chris’s point (which you are certainly free to do so). Chris suggests at the end of his post that, ultimately, he would opt for existentialism after a period of nihilism (if I understood Chris correctly). But existentialism itself seems a dead end to Chris, and so he’s a Christian. I think that is a perfectly fair and rational conclusion for a person to draw.

    And I think that Chris’s larger point about nihilism is not fully absorbed by many people who call themselves atheists or agnostics (I’m an agnostic). Most of us on the doubting side of the fence have essentially adopted a syncretistic world view. We have overlaid Christian ethics over our atheism and agnosticism without absorbing the fact that Christian ethics evolved out of rationales that do not function in atheism. Nietzsche saw this atheist justification problem and suggested that until one passes through total nihilism and has stopped overlaying Christian ethics onto the death of God, that one was not really prepared for “the Superman” or the transformation of society on atheist terms. Humanism, for Nietzsche, is thus dicking with itself. From Nietzsche’s vantage, humanists are practicing Christianity even as they ignore the fact that they have no historical or rational justification for doing so within the philosophy that they have adopted (atheism).

    In short, as a practical matter, if atheists and theists behave about the same, I think it is simply a product of our cooperative evolution, not because of ideology. Bonobos, if you told them there was no god, and they understood you, would still be nice to one another. Chimps, if you told them there was no god or if you told them there was a god, would still often be serious assholes to one another. I think that, as humans, we have our weird combination of inner bonobo and inner chimp, and that our ideologies are largely neutral in how they play out among us. Under stress, atheism and theism can turn noxious. In times of peace and abundance, neither atheism or theism seem to cause much harm. But as intellectual justification, atheism has a problem with simply placing Christian ethics onto an atheist framework and calling it humanism.

    —Santi

    —Santi

  7. Chris says:

    Sez me –

    I’m not saying that atheists are “bad” people. I’m saying, were I to follow an atheist ideology *completely through* to its logical conclusions, I could not really call any sort of ideology “bad” or “wicked”. In a truly meaningless universe, those words truly mean nothing. I do not see how atheists cannot see that this is where the road of atheism ultimately leads. If there is no meaning outside ourselves – that is, outside *your*self – then there is no meaning in the universe *as it is*. What is right/wrong or good/evil can only be what you, or I, as individuals, *choose* to consider as such. If we disagree with one another, neither one of us has the right to call the other wrong or evil. And, as most atheists are naturalists, we actually *ought* to put ourselves first, following how we view life in the world as it is. We are mere animals… animals with larger brains, but animals, who have evolved *because of* our instincts, which tell us to serve only the self, forget what we wish to forget. Dominate, conquer, intimidate… these are the laws of the wild, the laws of life, as it were. Before the Naturalist/Atheist disparages them he would do well to remember, without them – since he/she thinks that certainly there is no God directing our evolution – our species would not even be here. Life would not have progressed passed the most fundamental element. If atheists or right, we should expect our thoughts about “justice” and “love” to be accidental spinoffs of our primal “selfish gene” which somehow insure our individual survivor. After all, we came from mere “Nature”… from atoms and chemicals… from the void and blackness and emptiness of space… from lightning and earthquakes and the same laws that cause planets to be snuffed out by collisions with moons… hell, our entire galaxy will one day collide with another, or our sun will expand to engulf the planet, or a meteor will hit us, or a million other things.

    And if we came from this… if we are of this same mold… what makes you think your thoughts of someone being an “asshole” are anything more than a meaningless dream you have created for yourself? The universe – mere “Nature” – surely doesn’t give two shits about me stealing or being rude or screwing whatever chick I want. Sure, you can make believe that what you think actually makes a difference (existentialism/humanism)… it may make you feel better for a little while. That is, until you realize that all you are doing is creating your own fantasy world and willfully tricking yourself into believing what you want because the truth is too grizzly to endure. I tried this and honestly I about lost my mind.

    I have total sympathy with atheists. I’ve been one. The point I don’t think you realize is that yes, you can live for “self honor” if you’re an atheist. But you must go the whole way and admit that there really is no such thing as “honor”, and you are only pleasing yourself by thinking yourself honorable. It is, in the grand scheme of things, the same as feeling however anyone wants to feel. Hitler, for example, has as much right to feel how he did about killing Jews as anyone has to feel about abstaining from sex. He is making his own universe, setting up his own ideals, as is the atheist who doesn’t steal because he is being “self-righteous”. It is all make-believe.

    Santi hits the nail right on the head. Total atheism leads to moral nihilism. Fortunately, many atheist forget their philosophy and instead overlay some grand value judgment – such as be fair, love thy neighbor, etc – over their atheism. That is because you cannot have a system of ethics – a system of judging value – if we humans are only products of the blindless universe.

    If universe is blind, what can you appeal to to get an “ought”? You cannot derive an is from an ought. In order to have an ought, you must start with an ought. The humanist will say that oughts are within every human… “you are your own ought/universe.” But, if this is so, then each person has just as much right to do/think/say whatever they please.

    I believe contrary. I think we are all derived from that one Great Ought, from when we collectively share more or less the same understanding of right and wrong – the Tao… but anyway, that is a whole nother ball game. My point here is just to show how I do not see how atheists reconcile their value judgments while maintaining that we are products of a blind universe.

  8. Chris says:

    I meant to say, in the second to last paragraph, “you cannot derive an ought from an is.”

  9. scaryreasoner says:

    Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that guilt was much worse than it actually is. Let’s suppose that excess guilt would build up in a matter of hours and literally cause a person to become soe depressed that were invariably miserably, and almost invariably committed suicide.

    let’s further suppose that atheists had NO way to get rid of their guilt, and consequently, keeled over dead within a matter of hours of losing (or failing to attain) belief in Jesus (or whatever).

    Let’s further suppose that theists (of whatever stripe) managed to rid themselves of guilt by means of their beliefs.

    In what way does any of this show that theism is actually true?

    This all strikes me as a giant appeal to consequences.

    And, we all know that an appeal to consequences is a logical fallacy.

    Fail.

  10. santitafarella says:

    Scaryreasoner:

    I agree that I offered a strictly utilitarian reason for God-belief. I think that you have to look at the purpose of an argument, and its real world effects, before calling a consequential argument entirely a fallacy. It is true that a utilitarian argument cannot bring us to the fact of God’s existence (or absence). But humans are not just robots. It may be, on the human scale, a fallacy to ignore human emotions and human considerations in playing out the consequences of certain truths. Christopher Hitchens once quipped in response to whether he believed in free will: “I have to.” No amount of airtight scientific deterministic and materialist reasoning is likely to overthrow the “illusion” of free will in our courts or in our day to day lives. Likewise, atheism may be so unpalatable to some people, and bleak, that they feel that to go on living they must continue to hope against hope that God is real (even if they doubt it strongly). The alternative, for some people, may be impractable for them.

  11. santitafarella says:

    Scaryreasoner:

    Another example: Were I to learn that the Buddha was objectively right about desire causing suffering, or if I were to learn that the Hindus are right that the self is an illusion, I think I’d still want to live my life as a self with desire, and not become an aesthetic monk sitting in a monestary (even though that would be the correct objective orientation to the universe, and the definite “solution” to ultimate questions about the universe).

    Reason divorced from human considerations and the contingencies of individual existences is a kind of madness, don’t you think? Reality testing means more than just getting your logic and empiricism right and oriented in the direction of highest probability. It means actually looking at where your path is taking you as a whole. Kant once said he rejected Liebnitz’s ideas about theodicy because it meant the death of a child was a utility to the universe, and he said: “My heart rejects it.” I think Kant was right to say that, even if Liebnitz’s reasoning, in the end, were to prove itself 100% correct. Voltaire, of course, wrote Candide with the target in mind of logic divorced from real human lives.

    —Santi

  12. charleyjk4 says:

    Oh!.Do Christians not cuss,smoke and Masturbate?.

  13. santitafarella says:

    Charleyjk4:

    They do. But atheists, it seems to me, do them without guilt. Theists tend to feel guilt in these matters.

    —Santi

  14. Helena says:

    How is it a bad thing to accept responsibility for your own actions?!

  15. Helena says:

    Also Chris, reading your comment, I agree with everything you say in the first few paragraphs, and to be honest I think coming to terms with an indifferent universe is the best thing humanity can hope for. Yes, we do all come up with our own moral compasses- but that gives everyone an even stage on which to debate and discuss rationally, without taking quotes from an ancient book of questionable origin for the ultimate answers.
    At the end of the day, practicality is what matters, and yes, we do have “selfish genes”, but that entails being nice to each other and all that, I’m not going into the whole book of it because I can’t be bothered.
    But anyway, we only have each other, so we might as well accept it and make life good for each other.
    And at the end of the day, so what?<—yes, it's nihilism, not necessarily a bad thing
    Also, sorry for opening up this thread years in the future, but it came up on google.

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