This is the age-old accusation against atheists that come from village and philosophical theists alike. Ome retort to this has come from psychiatrist Ralph Lewis, featured in the Skeptic Magazine. It’s a great summary piece. Here are some selected paragraphs:
As a psychiatrist working with people facing many kinds of adversity, sometimes people ask about my own religious beliefs. In those cases where it is appropriate for me to provide a frank and direct answer to this question, it is not uncommon for some, especially religious believers, to respond with the question “You’re an atheist?! How do you find meaning and morality in life if there is no God?” What follows is my answer, addressed to a religious believer.
The age-old assumption that there must be some sort of higher purpose to life fits with an intuitive human tendency to think that “everything happens for a reason” (and it’s all about us). This assumption has powerful potential to affect motivation— positively or negatively. The belief that life has inherent purpose is a double-edged sword: It can be reassuring and comforting, but can also lead to bitter anguish and feelings of abandonment when suffering cruel adversity (“Why me?!”). In contrast, the realization that life is fundamentally random is anxiety provoking, but liberates people from destructive unfounded self-blame, and the realization that meaning is something we make for ourselves can be empowering.
I see how the human tendency to think that events have inherent purpose and to think that such purpose refers to oneself (“everything happens for a reason and it’s all about me!”) becomes magnified ad absurdum in psychiatric disorders: as paranoid delusions in psychosis, grandiosity in mania, and irrational magical thinking in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many aspects of human nature, and our many cognitive biases, are writ large in mental disorders, exposing the flaws in these intuitions more plainly. Interestingly, there are evolutionary reasons why we all have this tendency to mistakenly overidentify pattern and purpose.
To be an atheist is to consciously override these intuitions. Atheists do not believe that life is inherently purposeful or meaningful, and following from this they do not believe that morality is an intrinsic property of the universe. Atheists see the universe as indifferent to the living creatures that have evolved within it….
But you’ll no doubt concede that, unavoidably, meaning in life can be hard to find in some life circumstances. You must struggle to explain why bad things happen to good people. Even if you believe that there is some deeper purpose to suffering that defies our human comprehension, and if you believe that perhaps it will all make sense and become meaningful in some kind of world beyond the one we know, there is no escaping the fact that there are situations in which suffering is irredeemably terrible within the confines of this world. For believers, such situations often trigger a painful crisis of faith, in which they feel abandoned by God.
For atheists, accepting that life is not inherently meaningful means that in some cases of terrible suffering the reality is simply that nothing meaningful can come from that kind of suffering, and life for the sufferer is indeed meaningless in that situation. (There are situations where, quite rationally and reasonably, death may be preferable to some people rather than continuing to live in futile suffering and misery. In my line of work, examples include some cases of severe terminal cancer. In such cases, I support mentally competent individuals’ right to choose and access painless, rapid medical assistance in dying, when they are ready to “call it a day”.)…
To be an atheist is to consciously override our cognitive biases and intuitive tendencies that lead us to mistakenly overidentify pattern and purpose.
A fundamental source of meaning for you and me, like most people, is knowing that we matter— that our life matters to others, that our life has an effect on the lives of others, and that others care about us….
As for morality, aside from the point just made about deriving meaning from helping others, just like you I have a very strong inhibition against harming others. You assume that your moral sense originates from God, and you assume that you would not have that moral sense if you had not been taught it by your religion. But it comes from something much more fundamental than religion—it comes from your human nature….
“We have never once been taught by word or act to distinguish between religion and the moral laws on which it has artfully fastened itself, and from which it has sucked its vitality.” [from the 1883 book, The Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner] …
You see, religion is not the source of purpose, morality, and meaning. Instead, religion can be understood as having incorporated these natural motivational and social dispositions, and having coevolved with human cultures over time. Unsurprisingly, religion also incorporated our more selfish, aggressive, competitive, and xenophobic human proclivities.
You’ll agree that we humans have both prosocial and antisocial traits. Natural selection has shaped us to be cooperative, because this favors survival in social animals. And it has shaped us to be empathic, because this favors mammalian parentchild attachment and more efficient social interaction. Many other natural factors favor prosocial behavior, such as reputation—which plays a crucial role in primate groups. We have also evolved to be competitive and aggressive. As a general rule, people are inclined to cooperate with and care about those within their kin or group, and to compete against those outside the group. There are, however, frequent exceptions: selfish, indifferent and cruel behavior toward those within kin or clan; or empathic and generous behaviour to those outside the group. And there are tremendous interindividual differences in temperament that incline some people to be more cooperative and caring and others to be more aggressive or exploitive.
Human societies are increasingly interdependent, which has dramatically broadened the notion of “within-group” and has tended to favor cooperation in modern developed societies. Many other factors in the course of human civilization have tended to favor a gradual decline of violence and a trend toward more civil society.
Read the whole piece here.
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