Ask Richard: Is My Belief in Karma Incompatible with My Atheism?

Hey Richard,

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,

Scot

Dear Scot,

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.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • SpencerS

    Determinism is a secular idea (whether it is right or not is another matter) whoever Karma is a distinctly supernatural/religious idea.

  • ungullible

    Richard’s answer is, as usual, awesome. But the short answer is, yes, karma is incompatible with atheism. A plan requires a planner. A just universe requires a judge. You may not believe in an anthropomorphic god (a bearded man in the sky), but belief in karma is a belief in a higher power, which is just another type of god.

  • Zen Atheist

    I do think that Karma is real, but not in the way that people normally think of it. It is not about some higher power waiting to punish you for your transgressions. It is about being the kind of person that you want to be. With the act, (be it a good or an evil act)comes the proclivity to commit such acts. Think about he very first time you used a “curse word”. The second time was a much smaller deal in your mind, wasn’t it? The punishment or reward that you realize is simply what you see when you look in the mirror. Do you like that fellow or don’t you?

  • http://victorb.net Victorb

    I would disagree with the premise that karma and atheism are incompatible. There are ways of thinking of karma besides as a law or punishment meted out by a sky daddy.

    In its new age form, it’s referred to as the law of attraction, which is equally silly pseudoscience.

    As (more or less) a materialistic monist, I find great enlightenment in thinking of karma as just a guide to navigating possibilities in quantum spacetime.

    When we make a choice, that choice affects our future choices. When you bring other living beings into the situation who react to our choices, then our choices affect the future choices of others. In a system of individual beings making choices, a feedback loop is established. My reactions and choices feed off of your reactions and choices which feed off of my reactions and choices, etc.

    If your life, looked at as a whole, is nothing but destructive interactions feeding back on themselves, then you being a jerk to other people will result in people being a jerk to you.

    If you are nice to people and surround yourself with people who react positively to your choices, then you will create positive feedback which means more “good” things will happen to you and happen around you.

    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.

    If you chose to excommunicate a colleague years ago, there are very few possible branches for your timeline where good things will come to you from that person. If you run into each other again, that person is more likely to harbor resentment and treat you coldly.

    On the other hand, if there are a large number of people in your life who you have treated well, then not only will your timeline easily be able to branch into realities where the people you have done good things for return the favor, but people you don’t know who have seen or heard of your deeds can be inspired as well, which may come back to you if you meet them or their choices and deeds can affect you somehow.

    The bottom line is that there is no reason to think that the concept of karma is tied to an intelligent being or purpose. It can be a systematic function of our reality, emerging from the rules that autonomous beings with free will have to follow in order to live.

    Karma is probability and statistics, not woo. Unfortunately, it has been woo-ed to hell and back by everyone who has ever tried to describe or popularize it. Hopefully that can change.

  • ErinM

    Some people like to believe in destiny, or good things happening to good people, to assuage guilt and/ or fear stemming from the fact that their lives are okay while other people’s lives aren’t. Facing up to the fact that some people are born into unfortunate circumstances through no fault of their own, or that some people run into a spate of bad luck by sheer chance, is hard, because that means it could just as easily be you; and it means that there is no supernatural scorekeeper making sure good people stay lucky and bad people are actually getting what they deserve.

  • monkeyman

    argumentum ad euphoria is not grammatical Latin

  • Gary

    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.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    The words that jumped out me in this question?

    “I like to believe.”

    Strictly speaking, karma isn’t incompatible with atheism, as long as the version of karma you believe in is the vague “certain kinds of energy draw other kinds of energy” version and not overseen by a deity. But it is incompatible with a materialist, non-supernatural world view.

    Much more to the point, though: Believing things simply because you like to believe them is incompatible with a rationalist, skeptical, reality- based view — which, IMO, is the essence of atheism.

    I do think a version of what one might call karma exists: namely, the way we act in the world affects how our lives unwind and how other people treat us. But it’s not supernatural: it’s simple cause and effect. And it’s very far from the perfect justice of afterlife beliefs: whether those beliefs are heaven and hell, or reincarnation and karma. On the whole, I think good people do tend to be happier than bad ones — but those benefits are often intangible. And sometimes bad things do happen to good people, while the wicked flourish like the green bay tree. That’s reality. As rationalists, I think we have to accept that — and then do what we can to balance the scales and create social justice.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    What ErinM said. Accepting that there is no supernatural hand of justice means two things that are very hard to accept. It means accepting the vast degree to which your life is out of your control and is shaped by dumb luck. And it means accepting responsibility for the things that you do have some power over. If you got dealt an unfairly good hand, you can’t just sit back and wait for Jesus or karma to sort it out: you have a social responsibility to try to make the world more fair.

  • trixr4kids

    @Zen Atheist
    “The punishment or reward that you realize is simply what you see when you look in the mirror. Do you like that fellow or don’t you?”

    How do you account for people who have internalized abuse or societal prejudice, or people suffering from mental illness or physical deformity, who dislike themselves or are unhappy largely because of factors over which they have no control?

    And how about sociopaths, who treat people badly and feel just fine about themselves, thank you?

    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.

  • Shane

    I tend to agree with trixr4kids. Suffering and hardship are random and often beyond our control. It may be comforting to think we are the masters of our own destiny, but that is not always the case. Sure, we have considerable influence, but it is not usefully captured in some nonsensical notion of “Karma”. It just is not a useful model of reality because it is simply not how reality works.

    Quantum physics has nothing really to do with it: you could be good to a whole bunch of people and then branch into a set of realities where those people have been elevated to advantageous positions where they can crush you for their own advantage. It is not the mechanics of reality that matter–it is this universal conservation of “goodness” and how it is measured and determined (which essentially requires some conscious score-keeper).

    Ultimately, there is no universal Karma bank somewhere that keeps score and appropriately doles out good or bad fortune. It is a false idea and strikes me as mildly dangerous. Someone gets cancer because they’ve been “bad” and deserve it, or a gambler thinks that a string of poor luck means they are “due” for some good luck.

    Victorb: Karma is probability and statistics, not woo.

    I essentially agree with everything that you said (except for the way you present positive/negative feedback loops as easy to predict), but what you describe sounds more like game theory to me than karma. I think karma is inextricably bound to “woo” which include a concept of conservation of some type of amorphously defined “positive energy”. It is simpler to just abandon the word.

  • Ryan

    I “believe” in karma although probably not the kind that is this topic. To me, karma is more about what goes around comes around. It’s not believing that someone is influencing our behavior. I guess for me, karma is more of a way to live and act than anything.

    Good and bad things still happen to me. For example, say I find $100 and I honestly believe I can find the person who lost it. I’m going to do what I can to try to get the money back to that person. That does not mean that I know someone is going to do the same thing for me.

  • Pierre

    As an Atheist for 22 years and a “Buddhist” for going on 8 years I simply have to add my two cents worth, even though I think some of the responses above are really quite good. I know it sounds like a Zen koan, but I believe in Karma without believing in Karma. Basically Karma is “cause and effect.” It is the idea that what you do, how you act and treat others, and your mental processes, all have effects. When the Buddha lived 2500 years ago in India the ideas of karma and rebirth were already part of Hinduism, the main religion of the region at the time, and these ideas were co-opted to some extent. But it certainly isn’t necessary to believe in rebirth or some sort of divine judgement to believe in the essence of karma, if by that one means “cause and effect.” Several people have essentially made the same points above, but I’d like to add just a bit to them.

    I think we can all agree that things that happen have causes. Sometimes we don’t have any control in what happens (like if we are in an accident or get a brain tumor), but sometimes we do. For example, if we work hard at school and end up getting a good job as a result, that is cause and effect. If we exercise and eat a health diet and end up living a reasonably healthy life as an adult, then that can be seen as cause and effect. And I would guess that most of us would agree that people who treat others with respect and kindness, who are honest and polite, are much more likely to have more friends, be given the benefit of the doubt if they make mistakes, and in general be happier, than people who don’t. These are all aspects of Karma, cause and effect.

    But it goes a bit deeper than that as well. Here I’ll get a tad bit personal. I used to be an extraordinarily angry person. I won’t get into the reasons or issues, but suffice it to say that I’d get angry at a person or a group of people for, what I felt, was a totally legitimate reason, and I’d be burning with anger for hours or even days. Thing is, my anger was making me miserable, it didn’t have the slightest effect on the people whom I was angry at. Anger is certainly not a pleasant emotion to have for any extended period of time, and I was the one who suffered the effects of it. Cause and effect again. Karma. By allowing my anger to take hold in my mind I caused myself untold misery. This is a deeper level of karma, our mental attitudes, our mental states, cause happiness or unhappiness.

    If we are always negative or pessimistic, then we won’t be as happy as we could be if we were positive and optimistic. If we could drop our anger and feel compassion for people, even people we have reason to feel have hurt or harmed us, then we will end up being happier for it. Do I believe it is possible to make these kinds of subtler changes in our thought processes? Yes, I actually do. I think that pessimistic people CAN become optimistic people. Negative people CAN become positive people. Angry people can learn to not be angry! (One book I liked was “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s most Important Skill” by Matthiew Ricard.) This is a level of Karma that I think even the most die-hard atheists, like myself, can believe in.

  • Miko

    It is possible to have a plan without a planner. Consider a nest build by a colony of termites. Due to genetic factors, termites mix pheromones with mudballs that they deposit in a nest site, which then cause other termites to deposit mudballs in the same general area, with the end effect that simple creatures end up building amazingly complex nests. This idea of ‘order without an orderer’ is call stigmergy.

    Ratchet it up a few notches and you end up with an explanation of much of human behavior. Cheat your customers and you’ll go out of business. Be mean to your friends and you’ll have no friends. Cry wolf and no one will believe you when you’re telling the truth. This is the essence of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”

    Consider the absolute failure of anti-drug campaigners in the United States. Despite the best efforts of government officials, anyone who wants to can find `illegal’ drugs with essentially no difficulty. This is what happens when officials create a law that people don’t want to follow. Religions or secular governments like to claim that they make people good, through things like prohibitions against murder, but the truth it is that neither has anywhere near the resources necessary to enforce laws like these: people are good because they want to be good and because they prefer the outcomes of being good to the outcomes of not. The religion/government tries to create the illusion of leading the parade by giving edicts telling people to keep doing what they’re already doing. Trying to impose order on people is guaranteed to fail; yet left to their own devices the very same people will create order on their own. You don’t need a cosmic lawgiver with a tally book to believe that, on balance, good results will come to good people or that people will, in general, prefer cooperation to chaos.

    The danger of believing in karma comes from the fatalism of saying “it’s too late now; everything is already determined by my past actions.” While it’s unclear (to me) just what the Buddha believed about karma (according to Buddhist texts), his words or actions never suggested such a fatalism. Rather, he constantly encouraged those he met to change their ways, to break old patterns, and to perform good actions even if they had performed bad actions in the past. Does karma exist as a force of nature within the universe? Almost certainly not. But the more important question is: how will our knowledge of the universe shape our actions? Do we go to ideas like karma out of fatalist surrender or for inspiration?

  • Miko

    @Pierre: My favorite aspect of Buddhist teaching is it’s insights on anger. Westerners typically have the incompatible beliefs that 1) we can get rid of anger by expressing it and 2) that practicing something makes us better at it. One of the key insights of Buddhism (IMO) is that we can reject (1) without accepting the premise (1′) that we can get rid of anger by holding it in. If anger makes us feel bad (as it does), why should we care if our reasons for being angry are ‘good’ ones or not?

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  • http://victorb.net Victorb

    @shane:

    I essentially agree with everything that you said (except for the way you present positive/negative feedback loops as easy to predict), but what you describe sounds more like game theory to me than karma. I think karma is inextricably bound to “woo” which include a concept of conservation of some type of amorphously defined “positive energy”. It is simpler to just abandon the word.

    Some outcomes are easier to predict than others. The real-world influence of a murder is more easy to predict than that of a little league game, but they both come from humans making choices.

    As for game theory, why not? If the altruism game plays out so that cooperation is the best strategy, isn’t that then a game theoretical “proof” of karma? Those who respect the laws of karma and follow the golden rule survive in the population at numbers greater than those who do not. Apply the traditional human value judgment to that result and you have good versus evil.

    The idea of Karma and the way Karma has been interpreted in various world religions are two different things. It’s like a game of telephone. The original message is never the same as what gets transmitted to the public. Is there a whole bunch of woo in some interpretations of Karma? Yes. Are those interpretations quite popular? Yes. Is mine equally valid, despite its similarity to game theory? Absolutely. Call it what you want, spin it any way you like, and the idea is the same.

    And to bring it back on topic, I think it is a useful way of eliminating mental contradictions while enforcing cultural memes that make us feel good. If it makes you feel good to think about karma, that actions matter, that you reap what you sow, then do so. If it helps you live a better life where you are nicer to people, then for the sake of us all, please continue to believe that. But, if you are looking for a way to interpret the idea of karma that doesn’t involve woo, the sky is the limit and all that matters is that it makes you feel and think better.

  • ungullible

    “Cause and effect”. “What goes around comes around”. “Quantum spacetime effects”.

    Bah! I don’t care what you call it, if you think the universe somehow has a sense of right & wrong that balances out in any sort of “justice”, then that is just magical thinking, which is not compatible with atheism.

    Exactly how does one measure goodness and badness in the universe? (A: You can’t because it’s a human concept, not a physics concept.) And exactly how is thinking of it in terms of quantum spacetime *not* silly new age thinking? Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. The universe is a cold uncaring place.

    I thought being an atheist was about facing up to that.

  • Zen Atheist

    @trixr4kid
    “How do you account for people who have internalized abuse or societal prejudice, or people suffering from mental illness or physical deformity, who dislike themselves or are unhappy largely because of factors over which they have no control?

    And how about sociopaths, who treat people badly and feel just fine about themselves, thank you?”

    I don’t account for these things, as they are immaterial to my point. I offer one way of looking at karma, from the point of view of a relatively normal 42 year old man, who has done some small amount of reading on the topic. It is not an explanation of anyone’s behavior, but a lens through which one may view one’s own behavior, should one choose to do so. What I think people get wrong about karma is that they believe that it means that this happiness (or punishment) will be granted to them for whatever reason by some external power. I simply feel that happiness comes from within, and it begins with liking who you are. You can allow outside factors to influence that happiness or not, that is up to you.

    I 100% agree with ungullible. I do not believe in woo. I simply believe that we are responsible for our own happiness.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    Yeah, sure it’s compatible. Atheism, in its barest form, only says something about your belief in gods. I’m pretty sure you could cook up some sort of belief system which has karma but no gods.

    But I think “Is karma compatible with atheism?” is the wrong question. The better question is “Is karma true?” If by karma, we mean “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people”, then of course it’s correct, sometimes. But it’s not like the mechanism is completely mysterious. Doing illegal things tends to get you in trouble because of the law. Working hard tends to produce better results because better results require more work. Being nice to people tends to improve your relationship with them, and better relationships may benefit you later. Etc. Etc.

    Sometimes, the mechanism is completely mysterious. Those are the times when karma is probably false, or at least very unreliable. If we don’t know the mechanism, who knows what conditions must hold for it to really work, and who knows what conditions would completely mess up the karma?

  • http://victorb.net Victorb

    @ungullible:

    And exactly how is thinking of it in terms of quantum spacetime *not* silly new age thinking?

    I am confused. I was under the impression that quantum and general relativistic physics were sciences with vast tomes of peer reviewed material while new age thinking was feel-good spirituality untethered by evidence or criticism. Perhaps we have different definitions?

  • K. Eerie

    As Pierre, Miko, and Gary point out, Karma is simply an observable causal framework that permeates social reality. It need not be shrouded in hocus-pocus and doesn’t have anything to do with individuals getting what they deserve. It makes no predictions with respect to individuals at all, and in fact, strict interpretation of Buddhism holds that individuals are non-existent illusions.

    As social phenomena are potentially infinitely complex it would require the mind of a god to manage the myriad and intertwined karmic threads within a whole society. However, this is precisely what the social sciences attempt to do in some limited way. The Buddha was actually anticipating elements of modern social theory from Mills to Foucault, and even more overtly in the recent work of Michael Schwalbe.

    @ungullible

    You are quite right that terms like “goodness” and “badness” are vague and subjective, but a concept like suffering is less so. We actually only need one assumption with which to construct a totally rational system of ethics, and that is the assumption that less suffering is preferable to more suffering.

    Beyond this one can systematically determine whether individual or group actions, policies, and so on, will increase suffering, decrease suffering, or be neutral with respect to suffering. There is no magic here. Naturally, determining this requires very intensive and detailed analysis from a multidisciplinary/ interdisciplinary perspective, which is the direction that the social sciences have taken.

    We have learned, sometimes tragically, that oversimplified, unsophisticated, and unjustifiably optimistic approaches to social engineering of the past will not work. The complex social framework that this research will help to illuminate is in effect what “karma” is.

  • ungullible

    I am confused. I was under the impression that quantum and general relativistic physics were sciences with vast tomes of peer reviewed material while new age thinking was feel-good spirituality untethered by evidence or criticism. Perhaps we have different definitions?

    Ever noticed how many new age books try to latch onto Heisenberg Uncertainty and other quantum mechanical concepts to ride their coattails of legitimacy? Yes, quantum mechanics is real and scientifically based. It’s application to karma… not so much. Or can you can show me a peer reviewed article relating the two? ;)

  • ungullible

    @Victorb: after re-reading your original post, I retract much of what I said towards you. I misunderstood your point and it was unfair to lump you in with magical thinking. I saw the words “quantum mechanics” and jumped to an incorrect conclusion without fully reading your entire post.

    However, I think your feedback loop hypothosis is interesting but imperfect. Yes, it seems to work that way some times. But there are plenty of times where good people have net bad things happen to them in their lifetime, and vice versa. A mass murder is likely to get his just rewards, but that doesn’t make up for the lack of justice for his victims. There are plenty of people in power who got there, remain there, and will likely remain there through unscrupulous behavior and they would laugh at such a concept of karma.

    There may be karma as a (weak) rule of thumb, but not as a law of the universe. Why confuse people with a term that is laden with concepts of magical thinking?

  • Matt D

    as Ungullible says, goodness and badness are human concepts. If one accepts the idea of Karma (in its mystical, magical sense), one must also accept that humans hold some special place in the universe (I’m assuming no-one is going to try to make a case for animal or plant Karma).

    I dont think you can have it both ways. I would assume (please correct me guys) that most (all) atheists accept the purely natural and biological nature of our existence. If one is to accept that we are the result of generations of genetic mutations and natural selection, how can an argument in support of karma be taken seriously.

    I would argue that natural selection has favoured genes “for” treating each other “decently”, particularly our kin and members of in-groups.

    The idea of doing good and getting good in return is probably “hard-wired” into fairly primative parts of our brains. The need to give it a name (like Karma) is a prodcut of our more recently evolved higher functioning brain.

    Karma and Atheism are most definately incompatible.

    If an Atheist rejects the supernatural, but then starts to selectively pick out bits that make them feel good (eg healing power of crystals, tarot readings, karma etc) then they are open to the same ridicule as the theist who rejects evolution but believes science can cure their brain tumour.

    You either reject the supernatural or you dont – no fence sitting!

  • Pustulio

    I think believing in karma is like believing in ghosts. It’s not strictly theism so technically you can believe and still be an “atheist”, but it’s still a belief in the supernatural and therefore doesn’t really jive with what most people consider atheism to be. And I think that trying to broaden the definition of karma so as to make it compatible is akin to what theists do when they try to insist that atheism requires “faith”.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Most of the explanations of here as to why karma is real strike me as magical thinking (or “woo,” if you wish), in that they seek to conclude that good results invariably come to good people, and bad results to bad people, despite tons of evidence to the contrary. People often do bad things, not because they’re stupid, but because those bad things can often (not always) be beneficial. If bad things weren’t beneficial, no one would do them.

    But I wonder if this really means that karma is incompatible with atheism? My gut feelings is that an atheist “shouldn’t” believe in karma, but I’m not sure this is really the case. The only thing truly incompatible with being an atheist is believing in one or more gods. Maybe believing in karma is incompatible with critical thinking about karma, but lots of things fail by that test. I guess you can believe in astrology, psychics, UFOs, or 9-11 conspiracy theories, and still be an atheist.

    Gosh, I had no idea so many atheists were concerned with what they’re allowed to believe, as atheists: Ask Richard: Is My Buddhism Suitable for an Atheist?. Maybe Richard’s next letter will be “Can I keep believing in psychics and stay an atheist?” or “Is my belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah incompatible with my atheism?”

  • Richard Wade

    Maybe Richard’s next letter will be “Can I keep believing in psychics and stay an atheist?” or “Is my belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah incompatible with my atheism?”

    :D LOL!

    Fortunately, no one has asked those yet. The next few letters are more about daily life issues. Also fortunately, I’m not the authority who determines who is and is not an atheist. I just try to clarify the implications of such questions so the questioners can answer them for themselves.

    Remember back, those of you who came from a place of gods and souls, when your present views were new to you. Perhaps your convictions were tentative or fragile. Perhaps your ideas were uneven and conflicting. Perhaps you were uneasy and unsettled. Perhaps you were downright scared and distraught.

    What could a person as clear as you are now, say to a person as confused as you were then, to encourage you to keep going, to coax you to finally be free of the last of your mind-mist? Maybe some kindly person did that for you, maybe not, but we all have opportunities to comfort and inspire those who are now in that uncomfortable halfway place where we were for a time.

    Think of it as (ahem) ;) “good karma,” both earned and delivered in the same moment.

  • http://victorb.net Victorb

    @ungullible:

    There may be karma as a (weak) rule of thumb, but not as a law of the universe. Why confuse people with a term that is laden with concepts of magical thinking?

    I will gladly agree that my view is one of “weak karma.” I do not believe it is an absolute law because it is an emergent one. It therefore must be probabilistic, which means that not all good deeds will be rewarded and sometimes bad things will happen to good people (and vice versa). It appears that in our universe, karma operates with at least a slight a pro-good-deed bias, though this could be up for debate.

    As for terminology, that’s up to the user. If you feel better calling it “Ungullible’s weak causality principle” then go ahead. But I think the word “karma” already means most of what you want it to mean, so why not use the term more people will understand?

    A Hindu would tell you that karmic law is enforced by God. A Buddhist would tell you that it’s a law of nature. A Jain would tell you something inbetween. There is enough room in the word “karma” for all these definitions because the differences aren’t enough to warrant a new word.

  • Pingback: Is Karma Incompatible With Atheism? | Phasing

  • matt

    karma? totally incompatable with atheism in my life.

    where is the evidence for it?

    that which is asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof

  • K

    Obviously a long way to go. You used the word “faith” to describe your conversion to atheism. A little oxymoronic, don’t you think? Yeah, I had to stop reading at that point.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I personally reserve a little space in my epistemology that there are things about nature that we haven’t yet figured out and also some things that our “monkey brains” will never be able to figure out. I don’t consider this “reserved space” God or anything supernatural. It is just an acceptance that there will always be some things unknown about the world. Religious people fill this gap (and more) with God. Spiritual, but not religious, people fill this gap with “spirituality”. Others may fill it with “Karma”. I’m personally comfortable in not filling it. I simply admit and recognize that there is a gap there and some of it may never get filled. For me, that is the root definition of atheism.

  • K. Eerie

    IMHO atheists shouldn’t engage in belief at all, so far as being convinced of anything. Obviously as a practical matter we must behave as if we can take certain things for granted and the strength of these contingent “beliefs” is only due to the weight of the evidence that supports them. Echoing Matt above and Sam Harris, I can find no good reason to believe anything on insufficient or nonexistent evidence. However, Buddhism, and its version of the principle of karma pared down to its rational core is not religion at all, and does not require faith, and does conform very well with evidence from a variety of sciences as I stated above. The issue is not any particular term, but the nature of “beliefs” that self described atheists are engaging: contingent on real evidence, or blind faith.

  • CG

    Karma has a couple different conceptualizations. In discussing it, it’s useful to have either an operative definition – or a clear distinction between the forms.

    One is roughly a form of “divine justice” – this is the Hindu form, sometimes seen in Buddhism. The other is roughly equivalent to what we today would call “game theory” – and this is the form it takes in nontheistic or simply atheistic Buddhism. (And I’m not familiar enough to speak of the Jain understanding.)

    The one is compatible. The other isn’t – I’ll leave “which is which” as an strenuous exercise to the reader. :)

    But my only real point – and others do make this: most of our culture “understands” karma only in one context, but more than one context exists. It’s an error to condemn a concept entirely based on just one understanding of it, when there exist two or more – perhaps distinctly – different concepts that use the same word.

  • Guest

    Karma is cause and effect.  A person who is angry to their friends all the time has the consequence of less friends or less people willing to open up to them.  A child who is bought expensive computers and phones every year but throws them around and damages them may find that people are not so willing to purchase these items for them in the future.  These are crude examples but I hope it shows that you need not necessarily have a set belief system for the laws of cause and effect to make sense.


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