I have a question that deals more with a moral dilemma than an awkward social situation. Due to the decent amount of atheist literature I have been reading recently, I would consider myself a relatively new “convert” to the faith (of course I still have to use quotes around convert, I have a ways to go). Anyway, my question is this. I tend not to believe in a higher power, but I do believe in some form of karma, maybe even destiny if you will. To be perfectly cliché, I like to believe that “things happen for a reason,” that there might be an order to the universe (can an order be secular?), and that sometimes good things can even happen to good people. These ideas deal more in the vein of positive events; I do not subscribe to inane drivel, religious or secular, that scapegoats minorities for natural disasters, the breakdown of family values, etc.
So finally, are my notions of karma, with its seemingly implicit designings of a plan, in direct contradiction with my disbelief in a God?
Thanks for your time,
Instead of a moral dilemma, I think you are becoming uncomfortable with some beliefs you hold that you sense are inconsistent and contradictory. Your venturing into atheism is fairly new, and you’ve shared that you still “have a ways to go,” so it sounds like you still have some belief in supernatural agents or forces, but are unclear or unsure of them. For many people, this period of being uneven and inconsistent is a protracted and often uncomfortable time.
My advice below is only offered assuming that you want to get rid of the contradiction of ideas in your mind. Some people are perfectly fine with keeping their inner contradictions. They may even know that their ideas are logically incompatible, but they prefer having their comforting beliefs over intellectual consistency. Some will even acknowledge that they are believing something is true basically because it helps them to feel better. I’d call it “argumentum ad euphoria.” I tend to think that everybody has the right to whatever beliefs help get them down the road, and if those beliefs stop working, then they have the right to change them. (What they do to others is where I might object.)
Most of the descriptions I’ve heard of karma and similar things require some kind of supernatural agent to oversee it, basically a god, as well as a continuing soul to receive the karma, destiny, etc. Other versions I’ve heard that do not require a god or a soul are so vague and amorphous that they do not seem to be very useful for explaining things or for consoling oneself. The details of your particular concepts may make a difference in whether or not you can reconcile them with your disbelief in a god.I wonder if your ideas about karma, destiny, things happening for a reason, and an order to the universe come from the same need that your belief in a god used to fulfill. The idea of living in a completely non-conscious universe that has no built-in system of fairness, that only follows patterns we call physical laws but not moral laws, that not only doesn’t care about us but also cannot even know that we exist, is a very scary thing to many people. So when their belief in a parent-like god falls away, they may still be attracted to the comforting reassurance that there is some kind of order or justice to things, that we can have some kind of input, however small, to influence the things that happen to us, by virtue of our moral behavior.
Ask yourself what is the main thing that is bringing you to no longer believe in a god. If it is the lack of evidence, then your budding atheism comes from skepticism. Skepticism is not the stubborn refusal to believe something, it is the need for convincing evidence in order to believe something. You sound like you have that need. Look at your ideas about karma and the rest, and look for credible evidence to support those ideas. Be careful to not use arguments as if they themselves are evidence. It’s easy to slip into circular thinking, where the premise and the conclusion of the argument are the same thing. Arguments are not evidence, they need evidence. If, after a reasonable amount of effort, you find no credible evidence, then by your own same skepticism, your notions of karma, etc. are as unbelievable as gods.
Scot, if the evaporating of another comforting idea brings up anxiety or sadness for you, there is certainly no need to be embarrassed by that. It is very common and very human. Take your time with this inner inquiry, balancing diligence with patience. Talk to many other skeptics who are further down the road than you, especially about their early period, when they too were uneven in their letting go. I’m confident that eventually you’ll find clarity as well as a human-based and reality-based reassurance that will be stronger than the belief in invisible gods and intangible forces ever gave you.
I’m sure there are people who can comment on this post who will share with you their difficult early steps, when one comforting belief had fallen away, but they still clung to other comforting beliefs.