Is Karma Incompatible With Atheism?

An excellent question posed by a Scot, a reader at The Friendly Atheist. While Richard gives a fine answer supposing belief in a supernatural version of Karma, I find several of the comments interesting and more akin to the way I’ve used the term. Gary says:

Actually, the word “karma” is sanskrit and simply means “action”. Actions have effects. In Hinduism and Buddhism, some actions have beneficial effects and others have detrimental effects. Effects of actions in the current incarnation may have effects in later incarnations. In these religions, karma is a regarded as a law analogous to physical laws. A supernatural agent is no more required to administer karma than is required to administer the laws of physics. In Buddhism, which doesn’t have a belief in a creator god, one’s fate is entirely up to oneself, based on one’s actions. While a scientifically minded skeptic may not believe in rebirth, it is hard to claim scientifically that actions do not have consequences.

In fact Victorb does relate the concept directly to physics:

If you’re into modern physics, you should be able to see how this concept of karma can be mapped onto Hugh Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The branches that your reality takes as you moves through time are dictated by what is possible based on all your existing choices.

But trixr4kids is having none of it:

For the average educated, spoiled Westerner, sure, virtue is its own reward–but that’s not karma. Luck must be factored into the equation. “Karma” is an egregious concept (even in its watered-down versions, I think) precisely because it disregards the fact that suffering and hardship are random and tends to equate happiness with virtue.

I do think there is a connection between happiness and virtue. But the corellation isn’t as strong as it’s often made out to be. Used properly the idea can be inspiring, but as an absolute philosophy it can be downright insulting to those who have suffered hardships through no fault of their own (which is not to say we are relieved of all personal responsibility for our happiness – some hardships are indeed self-inflicted).

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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