“moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.” – Einstein

While working on my Go-Rilla VS. Elk Diablo comic I was catching up on old podcasts in my iTunes. Specifically I was listening to an episode of Science Friday titled “Balancing Science and Religion” in which Ira Flatow interviewed two scientists who were also religious. It was a really interesting listen but there was one quote at the end that was like a slap in the face to me and I would think to any atheist.

As I look about in the culture and world we live in, a world without the kind of noble intentions that arise many times out of people’s hearts in the consequence of their faith – a world that misses out on a Mother Theresa or an Oscar Schindler – a world where science has to go on in a completely materialist way – does not sound like the kind of world of wonderful humanity and nobility of humankind that I hope will be evolving over the many decades to come.

As if altruism and humanitarianism and “nobility” cannot exist in people who don’t believe in a higher power. Ridiculous, I say!

That made me wonder what famous humanitarians and generally celebrated people in history and modern times were/are also atheists. I googled “humitarian atheists” and before I found what I was actually looking for I found this:

Letter: Atheist actions can be selfless
by Letter to the editor
Thursday, March 27, 2008; 12:00 AM
I’m writing in response to the column, “Defending morality in an atheist’s culture is challenging” (CT, March 25). The author implies that a lack of faith in God translates to apathy toward others’ well being.

The author fails to understand the influence of society and evolution on altruism. It’s obvious that cooperation is the best method for progress — selfishness only works to a certain degree before everyone becomes selfish, benefiting nobody. Scenario-simulations show that cooperation always leads to the most success for groups. Just ask vampire bats, which actually regurgitate blood they’ve foraged during the night for a friend whose hunting was less fruitful. Next time, if the first bat gets no food, his friend can return the favor.

Giving up one’s seat and making sacrifices for another are explained through societal norms and evolutionary mechanisms. Society expects us to act a certain way, so it becomes ingrained into our minds to let an old lady have our seat. We make sacrifices for our kin because evolution wants our genes to flourish. If I die so that my two brothers survive, then there will be two sets of my genes, rather than just the one. My potential sacrifice for friends who are unrelated to me can be explained by my evolutionary triggers backfiring, which would encourage me to save everyone.

As for losing rights to atheist majorities, Norway was rated the most peaceful country in the world (the U.S. was 96th), as well as the least religious in Western Europe. In contrast, Hitler was Catholic, and Stalin Eastern Orthodox.

Finally, I argue that atheists possess stronger morality than theists. With no fear of God, our sacrifices are more selfless. Few of us believe in an afterlife, so we cherish the only life we get more. We put greater value on human life because, in general, we don’t think that any “soul” floats off someplace.

Andrew Shutterly
sophomore, psychology and Spanish

I don’t actually agree that “potential sacrifice for friends unrelated to me can be explained by evolutionary triggers backfiring” – I would expect that it has to do with the evolution of protecting your tribe and is completely natural (in the same way that the evolution of propensity towards religion was helpful for strengthening social bonds) but I agree with pretty much everything else that Andrew says.

3 Replies to ““moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.” – Einstein”

  1. perhaps it is my cynicism speaking but people do not help others who are unrelated to them. The entire job of a good campaign or communications strategy (political or non-profit) is to come up with ways to convince people why/how other people’s issues impact them and what can be done to help us all. people only care about things when they feel personally tie. Some people are raised with a more collective idea of personal impact but that is not true of everyone. I guess this ties into the whole nature/nurture debate.

    Many people use faith as a moral compass and I am ok with that, I recognize the important role faith can have in many peoples lives. Who am I to judge what gets someone through the day. I just get offended when people assume that is where my moral compass comes from or that I am wrong swhen belief system which differs from theirs. It would be hypocritical to argue otherwise as my commitment to social justice is dangerously close to a faith in the unknown.

    That said, I am equally cynical about science as I think our belief in its lack of bias makes the assumptions that many scientist make in constructing their research invisible. This is especially true in human and animal behaviour. How long did it take science to publicly acknowledge same-sex mating behaviour in animals? The assumptions people made based on belief systems and socialization made a whole range of behaviour in animals invisible. What else are we missing?

  2. I would say that your beef is not with the scientific method but with the bias of the scientific community, but I know what you mean. Certainly scientists are not immune to their own biases and that is why the most important tenet of the scientific method is that scientists need to show their work so that their peers can review it and point out the flaws.

    I’m sure that some scientist hundreds of years ago did (or if not, probably would have) made the homosexuality point, but was probably suppressed by…THE CHUUUUUUUUUUURCH! That’s an assumption but could probably be researched.

  3. Oh here’s a good quote from http://www.news-medical.net/?id=20718

    “The theme has long been taboo. The problem is that researchers have not seen for themselves that the phenomenon exists or they have been confused when observing homosexual behaviour or that they are fearful of being ridiculed by their colleagues. Many therefore overlook the abundance of material that is found. Many researchers have described homosexuality as something altogether different from sex. They must realise that animals can have sex with who they will, when they will and without consideration to a researcher’s ethical principles.”

    So yes, when a scientist tells us something we should always consider how, why and under what circumstances the research was done, as well as consider what we know about the scientists involved. And that skepticism of science is what makes science better.

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