What Do Non-Believers Believe?

Scott Carnegie and Gem Newman of The Winnipeg Skeptics made a fantastic short film with a variety of answers to that question:

What would you have responded?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Miss Coconut

    My problem with this is who says killing is bad? Why is killing bad? What are morals? Do they really exist? Is there such thing as an objective right and wrong or good and bad? I don’t think it’s nearly so cut-and-dry as this video makes it out to be.

    That being said, I don’t actually agree with killing people. But situations can be handled with logic. And, no, there are people who will think killing is okay. And, yes, we should stop them if we don’t want that to happen. But does that make them wrong? Or do we just disagree?

    • Anonymous

      Killing people is bad because it thins the herd and restricts growth in the community.  That is why we instinctively don’t kill each other.  Morals are better known as community standards.  That is why different countries and different tribes in large countries have different sets of morals and behavior that is acceptable.

      That seems pretty cut and dried to me.  :-)

      • Miss Coconut

        I see the logic in not killing people myself, and I can see why we would feel instinctively not to kill each other. However, it doesn’t make it wrong to kill each other. And what about over-population?

        Morals have to do with right/good and wrong/evil. It’s a very subjective thing. Some people think it’s a good thing to lie in some circumstances, but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees. I, for one, think ‘little white lies’ are unnecessary and ultimately it’s better to not say anything or to tell the truth. Others disagree.

        • Anonymous

          I respectfully disagree.  Why do morals have to do with right/good and wrong/evil?  That is what religion wants us all to believe and why atheists are vilified.  I think people are inherently good.  I know that is not a popular concept (my hubby and I really disagree on that point) and I understand. 

          I’m okay with little white lies if the truth would be too hard to hear or would hurt someone.  We are working on that with our 11-year-old son.  If Grandma were to ask him if she looks nice and she really doesn’t, we’ve told him it’s wrong to tell her that… maybe suggest she wear something else in a different color.  Not a lie… but the truth would hurt her feelings.  Why do that?

          Maybe just knowing that death is not good for life is all we need to know.  It’s not wrong, it’s not right… it’s just the way it is.

          • Miss Coconut

            ‘Why do morals have to do with right/good and wrong/evil?’

            Morals have to do with right/good and wrong/evil, because that’s what the word ‘moral’ means.

            ‘I think people are inherently good.’

            Well, I agree here, but that’s because I see ‘morals’ as subjective. People do what they think is right, which, to me, makes them good. Being that ‘morals’ are subjective, one would end up back at my initial question as to why killing is bad moral-wise. In which case, each person would have their own personal answers, — and not everyone would agree killing is actually bad; serial killers, people that agree with some wars, or just people that are okay with the death penalty say killing to some degree is good, in terms of humans, and humans in general kill plants and animals (it’s nature to kill, at least for food).

            ‘If Grandma were to ask him if she looks nice and she really doesn’t, we’ve told him it’s wrong to tell her that… maybe suggest she wear something else in a different color.  Not a lie… but the truth would hurt her feelings.  Why do that?’

            Well, see, suggesting she wear something different ISN’T lying. Saying ‘You look good’ when she doesn’t would be lying. There’s also the matter of perception: She could look fabulous to one person, and horrible to another. Everyone has different tastes. Trying to see the good in everything is helpful in such situations (‘I really like the pearls,’ ‘That colour really brings out your eyes,’ etc. — not ‘You look nice,’ but true).

            ‘It’s not wrong, it’s not right… it’s just the way it is.’

            That’s pretty much what I’m saying. Morals, right, wrong, good, bad, etc. are they just in our heads? Does the universe deem things as good or bad, or do we just see it that way? I say yes. We were programmed by evolution/natural selection to try and get us to have as many people as possible. Is there a purpose or is that just how the universe works? Who knows. But then that might just lead back to the question on morals again. So…it’s not really cut-and-dry.

      • ff42

        While I agree killing people is immoral, the above reasoning leaves me scratching my head – sometimes it is GOOD to thin the herd, to weed out undesirable traits, to eliminate those that would do harm to the herd.

        • Anonymous

          I agree… sometimes thinning the herd is the right thing.  Is it our job to do that?  Who chooses? 

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      I view morality from a practical perspective. 
       
      Philosophically, morality can either be absolute or relative.  There is also a religious and a secular way to view these two possibilities. 
       
      For there to be both absolute morality and a totally benevolent God, God would have to be subservient (or 2nd) to the absolute morality.  An atheist could then legitimately say that one could directly seek the absolute morality by bypassing God.   
       
      If morality came from God, then morality would be RELATIVE to what-ever God said.  God could specify rules that are not in the best interest of life on earth.  An atheist who did not believe in absolute morality would say that it is up to individuals and society to determine what is moral.  Morality is relative to the collective decision of all parties with skin in the game.
       
      In either case (absolute or relative) there is the practical challenge of determining what is moral.  A religious person might say that it is written in the bible.  A non-believer would say that the morality in the bible is merely the opinion of the people who wrote the bible.  If there is an absolute morality, there is work to be done to determine what that absolute morality is.  If morality is ultimately relative, then there is work to be done to determine what works best for everybody with skin in the game.  In either case, there is work to be done.  Don’t abdicate that work to people that lived over 2000 years ago.  We need to keep doing the work right now.

      • MOG

        Jeff,

        I see one more possibility with regard to morality comig from God. If God exists, and is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, then morality could be simply part of Him, not a product of what He says. It wouldn’t require his subservience.

        My Second point would be in response to your statement that we must determine what that absolute morality is. The problem is that only with those three characteristics omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence can we know anything. There is a difference between knowledge and knowledge of. Knowledge is an internal thing while knowledge of is an external thing. We can have knowledge of morality but until morality is internal we cannot know it. We would only have knowledge of and our assigment of values we determined to be moral would shift as our perspective shifts.

        So from a mathematical perspective, relative morality is an invalid position.

        • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

          MOG,

          One
          quibble with your first point.  If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent that just means
          He is all knowing, all powerful, and everywhere present.  Those attributes don’t
          necessarily infer a moral being.  He could be all those things and also a
          complete dick.  If he happened to also be moral, then he must have some reasons
          to be moral.  We could simply strive to be moral with our own reasons.  If you
          are saying, though, that He is those three things plus being perfectly moral
          wired into His “DNA” without consciously choosing to be moral, then that
          presents some problems.  Conventionally, we like to think of morality as
          choosing the correct course of action.  If God never made a choice, how can we
          call Him moral?  I think all you end up with is a perfect mathematical platonic
          object that doesn’t actually exist except for in your mind. 

          Your second point seems somewhat pointless to me and you
          are just playing word games.  Surely we can know stuff without being omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  In the sloppy
          real world, we only get approximate answers and understandings and this is
          usually good enough.  Feel free, though, to fantasize about a perfect being.
           But that is all it really is.  A fantasy.

      • Miss Coconut

        I’m sorry, you seem to be under the impression I believe in a god? I don’t. So, what I gather is you are saying ‘morals’ are pretty much what we say they are?

        • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

          Miss Coconut,  I’ve enjoyed reading your commits for a while and realize that you are an atheist.  My previous comment was really addressed to a larger audience since I know that lots of people read these discussions. 

          • Miss Coconut

            Okay, you had me confused for a minute there. Thanks for clearing that up!

  • Annie

    I would love to have a coffee (or a glass of wine) with Sophie.  They all did a great job. 

    Ultimately, I believe we are born to simply live (until, of course, we die).  What we do and how we behave while alive can have a negative or positive impact on ourselves, our families, communities, and possibly, the world.  Choosing to do good, experience all I can, and love and accept those I meet is a conscious and selfish choice, as it allows me to live a fulfilling and enjoyable life.

  • Pickle

    When I started questioning my faith and thought about this life being all there is, I started to see life as more sacred than I ever did as a Christian. When I think about there being no heaven to go to (or any other after life), then death seems an even greater tragedy. I don’t mean to imply that Christians don’t care about life (although many seem not to) just that I think a lot of them take it more for granted, assuming that death is not the end.

    • se

      I’m in a relationship with a christian and I have been told (by my partner) that I ‘behave’ better than most christians he knows, and I have told him that the reason for that is because I want to treat people the way I want to be treated and I don’t have ‘god’ to fall back on.  Apparently Im still going to hell and the ‘bad’ christians are going to go to heaven because they actually believe.  Go figure, why would god give them rules if the rules are negotiable? I simply take solace in knowing that the time I am here counts for something and I KNOW I am doing the right thing for everybody

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=597146320 Scott A. Carnegie

    One of the participants, Mark, points out that morals are situational, sometime it is okay to lie, or kill, there is no black and white absolute.

  • Garren openID

    About half the video is about morality and it does a good job responding to the kind of religious believer who identifies morality with avoiding harming others and taking fairness into consideration, and who might think these practices require religious belief.

    However, the video is weak against any theist who wants to know what grounds morality. Maybe this is too much to ask, since atheists hold diverse, strong, and conflicting views about metaethics. So putting atheists on the video who haven’t studied moral philosophy is probably the smart move at this point.

    (For what it’s worth, I think morality is just a matter of what people want the world to be like, without any objective factual basis beyond that. Not great marketing for atheism, I know!)

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com/ Paul

    I know it’s simplistic and horrifically Halllmark-esque but my response comes down to smiles. The world is a much more enjoyable place to inhabit when people are happy so I do what I can to help people (and animals) smile. Of course in reality it’s more complex than that but it’s what it boils down to and it tends to make people smile when I tell them that :)

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    Loved it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/asecretagentwoman secret agent woman

    I’m not sure any religious people would be swayed, since they are entrenched in their belief systems.  But the folks in the film do echo my belief that you do good because it is good, not because a supernatural being tells you to.  I find it comforting to know that we can live a moral life without the promise of a heaven or the threat of a hell.

  • MOG

    Hopefully I won’t draw the ire of those on this site. I don’t subscribe to the beliefs of those within this video, but they do raise some interesting points. But I believe the difficulty I have is that the positions raised don’t hold up to mathematical scrutiny. From a state versus values perspective, a perception of morality is a value, but if morality (right and wrong) exists, then morality is a state. Values, because they are assigned from limited perspectives, are fallible are cannot be real. States, because they either exist or don’t, are independent of assignment and are real. So those who claim they are moral, would be doing so from their limited perspectives, and would be assigning values to morality. All of us do this. We assign values to ourselves, our actions,  and beliefs, as well as to others, their actions, and their beliefs. And the assignment of those values, whether positive or negative, are divisive. But, if morality exists, thus would be a state, then it has to be absolute. If it exists, it can’t be based upon the beliefs of fallhble people.

    Looking at the question concerning the existence of God, our beliefs or non-beliefs can’t change the state of God’s existence. Either God exists or He doesn’t. For us to argue, or debate, or even reason, can’t change that state. And as I previously mentioned, it divides us. When I assign a label to myself or to others, I do so with bias. So if we want to move toward equality, we must stop assigning values and see others from a state-based perspective. 

    In closing, I just want to say that although my beliefs may differ from yours, I don’t assign a value to you. Mathematically, the net sum of our beliefs is equal.

  • Harold

    It amazes me that atheist seems to think about and focus on God and religion as much as the religious people do.  Atheists are unlike any other believer.  The Christian spends little to no time thinking about Allah.  The Hindu doses not frame their beliefs on why Christianity is wrong.  

    However, the atheist spends their time discussing how they are different from the religious people.  The atheist or non-believer can’t seem to get past religion.  The atheist seems to need to put religion down in order to build themselves up. 

    It would be nice to listen to a video or a discussion about what atheist or humanist or non-believer actually believes with out mentioning religion.  I think it is time for the atheist and non-believers to let religion go.  Don’t worry about it.  Don’t frame your beliefs around it. 
     
    -Harold

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=597146320 Scott A. Carnegie

      Most of the people in this film come from some sort of religious background, so it is part of their life. Rejecting that belief system is a mjor turning point for them, so it is relevant.


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