There is a Netfix show called “After Life”. Ricky Gervaise stars as a depressed widower who lost his wife to breast cancer. He also writes and directs the show. Like in real life, his character is an atheist, and does not believe in an afterlife. After telling a coworker he does not believe in life after death, and that when you die you are gone, finished, with nothing left, the coworker says ” If you don’t believe in an afterlife, then you could rape and murder whenever you want”. Gervaise’s character replies “I do rape and murder whenever I want, I just never want to”. The coworker walks away perplexed at that answer.
Is it possible to be good, to “do what is right” without a higher moral compass that is guided by belief in an afterlife, a supreme being, and the faith that you’ll be rewarded by your actions in this life?
As I wrote about a few months ago, one of the thoughts about why we have religion, is that once our ancestors started to live in larger groups due to the invention of agriculture, there needed to be laws to control the people. Civil laws and/or religious laws were created to keep everybody in order.
Are civil laws enough to keep people moral, or does there need to be a belief in God to really live a moral life? Can an atheist be moral?
Is it harder for Christians in general, and Mormon’s in particular to accept that an atheist could leave a happy, moral life, and not cheat on their spouse or rob from their employer?
You don’t need religion to be moral. We evolved to be socially coherent through complex emotions such as empathy and compassion. We are not the only species to have developed in such a way. Other primates, dolphins, dogs, and elephants to name just a few also evolved with these emotional responses.
Well the proof is in the pudding. I live in a country where the majority of people would identify as agnostic/atheists. There is no higher criminality or immorality here then anywhere else in the world. So people will not “go out of hand” when they don’t believe in a God or a higher being ruling this universe. Furthermore, I think the freedom to believe and think what you want leads to people thinking for themselves and coming up with their own moral compasses.
Being atheist doesn’t mean you hate God, it only means you don’t believe in one.
I think it is important to always be weary of religions which limit your freedom of thought. Limit you capacity to act according to my your own moral standards. That is one thing I love about this break from physical church. It allows me to freely explore what I really believe and not be swept away in the hustle and bustle that comes with being what is defined as an active member.
Honestly, our believe in God (or whatever to call Her/Him) is also based on hope, not on knowing.
When it really comes down to it, all of us know zilch for sure and we are all seekers of of Light, Truth, Peace and Wisdom. None of which can be completely found in just one place or one religion.
I dearly hope there is an afterlife. I cannot imagine ceasing to exist when I die. I want to see my boys again. I want to see my dad and grandparents and have communion with all my friends and family. I have had three waking visions of loved ones who have passed. I feel their influence in very specific ways.
None of which is proof of an afterlife. None of which could not have a neuropsychological explanation. I may hope/wish “with every fiber of my being” but there is only one way to know for sure. And I would like that event to be a long way off.
I have become disconnected from the concept of eternal consequences. I don’t believe that the good and ill that befall me are punishment or reward for my actions or that I am being given trials for my own good. Trials that will burnish my soul for a greater reward in the next life.
Yet, I have no desire to do evil. I love and hope to love better. I am moved with compassion. I can choose to turn the varieties of my existence into opportunities to learn and to become more. I can fiercely stand with my fellowman against the evils perpetrated by my fellowman. I willingly sacrifice for others.
I think it is hard for the very religious to accept that non-religious, secular people or atheists can be good on their own accord. Probably because they (we) have been deeply trained that such is impossible – the natural man is too weak.
The other side of that coin is all of the naughtiness and even evil perpetrated by believers. Those for whom a firm belief in hellfire does not deter them in their wicked ways.
Eternal reward or punishment do not have sway over my decisions. How I feel about myself does. I am grateful that my Mormon upbringing provided a framework for those values to develop. My experience with others that are trying to be good humans teaches me that no matter how much Mormonism wants to be the channel for all truth, it doesn’t have an exclusive on positive values. Having taken off those elitist blinders, I am seeing how truly wonderful people can be as they try to be kind, solve human problems, and act as if people are more important than beliefs.
The richness that comes with living for this life, for me at least, if far more satisfying and real than living for the next.
One could point out that morality being someone’s own set of rules of conduct, all live according to a certain moral. Religious or not. I think the difference between a believer and a non-beliver in regards of morality will be in defining what is right and what isn’t. Religion brings a common framework that adherents work from, its fairly easy to figure out what a “good persom” consists of for those inside a specific community with its specific ethos and sharing the same framework. If one rejects the established frameworks of prominent religion, than what defines a good person to that him depends ultimately on his definition of right and wrong.
And knowing that our morality is de facto personal, civil laws are clearly not enough in making moral people since they result from the morality of the law makers and not the other way around.
My guess is that education and well-built character are essential in building moraly sound people, Religion properly applied provides this, secular states who succeed do to.
Atheism is total trust in letting go and personal responsibility. No longer clinging to the idolatry of Christianity and Mormonism, the biggest being conceit, fake piety, and clinging to a god that usurps mans naturally developed morality with a set of rules that god (those in power) is also the author of their own immunity. And of course, the mask, but you find out who you really are through unbelief.
It’s funny how scripture plays on the chiefest weakness of human psychology with wordplay. “The natural man is an enemy to god”. The natural man is actually the believer. Everyone is compelled to cling to some form of belief—a set of ideas your comfortable enough with to sell your independence to the group. Religion is a reward system, giving celestial points for doing what humanity can hardly resist—believe.
Born gullible and deceived at every turn since birth, now belief is the pinnacle of religious experience is belief. Belief is a virtue. That’s really funny, actually, when you see it.
jim, I think”you find out who you really are through unbelief” in a set of rules as sufficient. That does not require unbelief in God, afterlife, or even Christianity or Mormonism, though it would require unbelief in some version(s) of Mormonism. I believe those versions to be distortions of what is truly revealed and valuable in Mormonism and Christianity — distortions even when they are or appear to be institutionally supported. I expect the overuse of fear as an institutional motivator — fear of punishment/fear of not being rewarded here or in the afterlife — may be one reason some find unbelief in God or afterlife liberating. I wonder.
A lot of people find themselves morning the loss of loved ones a second time when they deconvert because they always believed they would see them again in an afterlife.
Yes, I know atheists who definitely have moral compasses.
As Christians, if our only motivation to be good is to score points for heaven, then we’ve missed the point. As Jesus and other Jewish leaders of his time pointed out, the commandments boil down to loving God and loving our neighbors. Our goal is to get to a point where we don’t need threats of hellfire and damnation to “be good,” it comes from loving God and those around us.
I think the TV show The Good Place was a powerful essay on this topic. I don’t know if it had an equally quotable line to sum up a conclusion but I’ve never experienced a more compelling and hopeful expression of the end of life and the ambiguity of the afterlife than the finale. I found it confident, optimistic and eminently reassuring without any need for a god directing human experience or defining or enforcing values.
In answer to Bishop Bill’s questions, and by way of general comment:
Mary Ann’s reminder about loving God and loving our neighbor as the foundations and goals of true religion is apt. As Christ said in the NT, all the law and the prophets hang on these two principles. If God exists, and if as a loving God He gives me rules to follow, then society and I will be better off if
we follow His rules. But God knows that we will make mistakes along the way, and that is why He provided us Jesus Christ as our Savior. Paul reminds us that charity is the greatest virtue.
Neither civil law nor belief in God are enough to keep us moral. Religious laws are designed to make us better, but being fallen creatures, almost all of us, in greater or lesser degree, use the good tools that God has given to help us be moral, as weapons against other people–both literally and figuratively. So atheists are as capable of religious people as being moral, but everyone fails. Some more spectacularly than others, whether religious or non-believing.
Yes, it is often hard for Christians to accept that atheists can lead happy, moral lives. There is an almost universal mindset that says, “if you do not think the way I do, then there is something wrong with you.” Just look at our secular religion of politics in this day and age, when Red and Blue camps seem more preoccupied with finding fault with the other side, than in actually improving things.
What I try, and too often fail to do, is to take Christ’s parable in Luke 18, as my guide. The publican, who simply asks God to be merciful to him, a sinner, is justified rather than the condemning Pharisee.
I have been asked many times over the years by Evangelicals, “Are Mormons Christian?” I answer, “some are, just as some Evangelicals are Christians.” I think that the key for Christians (and all people, for that matter, including non-believers) to be happy, is to love one another. It is unchristian when believers point accusing fingers at unbelievers. It is also a bit self-righteous when unbelievers point to believers’ failings as a reason for themselves to not believe. Because we all fall short, particularly when we are in a position to exercise power over others.
I once knew a Latter-day Saint who was a wonderful, loving person. She was not too sure whether Third Nephi was in the Old Testament or the New Testament, but she tried her best to live the Sermon on the Mount. Better than most rule-bound Latter-day Saints. God wants us to follow Him, but when we can’t do it all, He wants us to love Him and others, first and foremost.
Atheists can be moral and immoral. And as for those who believe in the afterlife, certain conceptions of the afterlife (obtaining 72 virgins for instance) have motivated people to commit unspeakable atrocities.
My rule of the thumb is that afterlife beliefs should not be motivating us beyond reasoned conceptions of the here and now and foreseeable future. In other words, let’s focus on what we know about the here and now and near future more than whatever vague conceptions we have of the afterlife. Also, let’s not get carried away too much with afterlife beliefs. How much does anyone really know? Let’s not let it make us make bad decisions in the here and now.
Interesting post. Of course it is possible to be a moral/ethical person without an sort of spiritual belief. In fact, I’d suggest that people who are kind and loving simply because they believe it is the best way to be are a lot more dependable than folks who act kindly out of fear of God’s punishment. Mary Ann is right about making the right “moral” choices out of fear of punishment. I believe that most religions, including Mormonism fear true enlightenment because they are out of business if people discover on their own that kindness, charity, good will and empathy make for a better life and a better world. It’s why so many religions have these absurd fights over the purity of doctrine, or orthodoxy, or transubstantiation; if churches can’t find a way to make such trivial matters seem really important, they’ve got nothing to sell. That certainly (and perhaps especially) includes Mormonism, which in my experience is more about cultivating fear (and providing itself as then only way to eliminate that fear) than it is about cultivating true hope, love, etc. I’ve been listening to/reading conference talks for thirty five years and it’s my experience that the fear-mongering voices of warning about the adversary, LGBTQ people, intellectuals, artists and independent thought are a lot louder than the voices calling for simple kindness and love. YMMV.
And the notion of the “one true church” is exactly what drives the idea of many LDS folks of atheists not being capable of being moral or whatever. That idea ties into notions of society and communal living, especially given a lot of the Mormon rhetoric surrounding the second coming, societal degradation, etc. Mormonism’s reasons for the general disintegration of culture, mores and whatnot have to do with people not finding God, not embracing Christian principles, not being a member of the “true church”, etc. And that, of course, is just nonsense. Even a cursory look at history reveals how much damage religious thought has done (and continues to do) to humanity. I’d suggest that a purely secular state, where everyone’s beliefs and lifestyles were truly treated as equal, would lead to a much more civil and enlightened society than the one we have now. IMHO, a society where no religious ideology has the upper hand is likely the most peaceful one.
We use the word “morality” as if people agree what that entails. In fact, people don’t even agree which acts or intentions carry moral weight versus those which don’t. There is a whole range of philosophical theories about what constitutes the essence of morality. And most people quite ably make their own moral decisions in complete ignorance of the philosophical debate.
As for religion or Mormonism in particular … yes, some people are motivated to treat others nicely because of their religious beliefs or commitments. Others are motivated to do questionable or even horrible things because of their religious beliefs or commitments. It’s tricky to try and draw a firm conclusion about whether religion (or any particular religion) makes people better or worse. And what objective moral standard or metric would you apply to make that determination?
Central to all the comments for this post is the question of what motivates people to act the way they do. Why do they commit good deeds, why do they commit bad deeds. Free will (what Mormons call agency) is basic, but from what I have read, the basic shape of a human personality, and what motivates one to act the way that he or she does, is largely set by the age of 18 months. I once watched a National Geographic special that photographed the prenatal development of twin girls in their mother’s womb, and even then, one was shoving and kicking the other, to give herself more room, and the other child was passively submitting.
And then we spend the rest of our lives finding reasons to justify how we act! Some day, I look forward to asking God about why this is so.
In the meantime, some people use religion to find purpose in their lives, and to make things better. It is easy to shine the spotlight on the bad done in the name of belief, but much good is done. But just as many religious people, if not more, use their beliefs to try to coerce others to follow their will. I say this as a believer., but I do not think that unbelievers are any better.
I believe that unfortunately, the most basic human impulse is to seek to dominate others, to suit the larger world that we live in, to our own preferences. Religious belief and non-belief will usually serve this end, and then we try to mask it all in the name of good.
This is why I like Wheat and Tares. It usually promotes civil discussion of various topics, and gives us the chance to better understand not only other people, but ourselves. That is what reduces intolerance.
To answer the reverse question, it’s also quite possible for Christians and others who believe in an afterlife to be immoral. All told, belief in an afterlife is not a helpful predictor of good behavior.
“We believe” proves you’ve merely lowered the bar in the set of rules you’ve agreed to follow, even when you know better. The missteps of the brethren and their continued support really illustrates what the power of belief can do. This authorized artwork bit is the latest ridiculous faux pas of a long line.
It is a common misconception that fear of afterlife spawns a desire to disbelieve. No, not at all in my case. It’s the contradictions and common dismissal of what doesn’t add up. Really particularly in Christianity vs Mormonism, but they have their fair share as well. What makes Mormonism and Christianity endure is it’s basically a closed system. There are many legitimate ways of being, but I was always taught how special it was. When I finally started to peek around and travel I found it was not special at all, but to the contrary.
Unbelief is very liberating, but it’s not what you think. It’s a clean slate to see the world without bias. True there are no gods, but is there nothing else at all? Atheism isn’t really the last stop on the tracks. And as brother Nibley often stated; in life we are almost always given two wrong choices, in this case belief in god or unbelief. But that isn’t the real question, and most of us find there is another way to see the world and experience it without all the contradictions. The ancient shaman knew this, as well as the zen and tao philosophies of the east, that there is no monarchial boss and the universe is of itself and infinite.
But really it is the appeal to faith and what that does to mankind that convinced me. And no matter the outcome of belief, they will defend it with everything. Belief is the pinnacle of western religious thought
I confided in a very devout LDS friend that I was taking a step back from Church activity. I wasn’t expecting a lot of support, but I was surprised when his response was to caution me against falling into serious sins. Like, really? You think the only reason I’m not shooting up drugs and sexing it up every weekend is my Church membership? Dude.
I’ve been inactive for over a year now, and my greatest ‘sin’ is an occasional cappuccino and buying one (1) tank top.
People are who they are, that’s what I’ve decided.
Outside religion, morality can be discerned in agriculture—a fitting metric. Some farmers use chemicals, herbicides, pesticides. Some farmers use “organic” inputs and avoid ultra-toxic chemicals. And some farmers build their soil holistically. The morality of a farmer is determined by his product.
The fruit and veggies grown by holistic methods (like what we would find from a biodynamic dry farm) have greater nutrient density and top chefs say it tastes better. In agriculture, morality produces better fruit.
Religion is optional.
An atheist can believe in a godless afterlife…
Melinda: you bought a tank top? How dare you share with is such a graphic detail.
I believe the evidence is that less religion makes for greater morality.
I have been concerned at the moral vacume required to Vote for Trump, and if Utah votes for him again in November with 4 years of evidence, Including hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths?
America is the most religious of wealthy countries by a factor of more than 2. For instance, more than half of American adults (55%) say they pray daily, compared with 25% in Canada, 18% in Australia and 6% in Great Britain. (The average European country stands at 22%.) Actually, when it comes to their prayer habits, Americans are more like people in many poorer, developing nations – including South Africa (52%), Bangladesh (57%) and Bolivia (56%) – than people in richer countries.
It is also the country with greatest inequality.
It is also the country with greatest proportion of people in prison.
It is the only one without universal healthcare.
The country with the highest rate of abortion.(of this Group of wealthy countries)https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/abortion-rates-by-country/
The country which politicized/climate change and opposes it.
The country which politicized the virus, and has the highest deaths, and more to come.
Have politized discussion so the other view is hate.
Sure there are more.
I see all of these as being measures of caring for our fellows, or lack thereof, and morality. It appears the most christian nation is also the least moral.
Trying to wrap my mind around an atheist believing in an afterlife. I suppose that’s possible but the why they would escapes me.
The presence if a God-figure is not a prerequisite of an afterlife. I find that a very interesting notion actually. Need to ponderize that a bit more.
Alice, I’ve heard less religious folk theorize that since matter/energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it’s remotely possible the mind still lives on in some form once the body dies.
I’ll admit I’m somewhat cynical of Arganoil’s comment on comparitive crime rates of Atheistic countries vs. religious ones. How do the civil laws compare with more religious countries? My mission was in a country that was largely atheistic or agnostic, and I was surprised at how many laws it had for things I wouldn’t even think of, and even more surprised by how many of those laws were actually enforced. Although not the first nor last to express the sentiment, I’m reminded of Elder Christofferson’s comment that the more laws a country implements is a sign it has become less civilized, not more so. Take religion away, and mankind has a tendency to fill the vacuum in more ways than one, and not necessarily good. I look at all the comments implying how much war and bloodshed has been caused by religion, and I have to wonder how closely they’ve studied the implementation of godless communist regimes.
I love the Gospel because I feel its teachings enhance agency and kindness in this life, largely for its own sake, in addition to the promise of an exalted lifestyle in the world to come. Without the temporal aspect in play I feel like it would diminish purpose and sincerity in simply seeking exaltation alone. What scares me with many atheists is that they’re then left alone with the idea that their best source of enlightenment is usually just other people, and that the best expression of their ideas will likely have to come in the form of government implementation. That scares me a bit. I’d like to think if those ideas have enough merit, then they could stand on their own without government support, the same as many other religious or political organizations. I realize many do have their own organizations, but they often seem overly vocal with their demands on government. Maybe that’s just fear in me speaking.
A group I’ve grudgingly come to admire is conservative, libertarian, or anarchist atheists. It’s as if they’re saying “Who needs a rudder or even a boat? We’ll swim our own path with our own two feet.” They seem to have the tenacity to do it. Whether they’ll maintain the energy for it remains to be seen.
Yes, I’ve met very moral atheists. If I’m honest though, after doing all I can to remove all preconceived notions, biases, and any shaded glasses I might be wearing, I can’t help but come away with a feeling that many of these atheists are still searching for something they haven’t found yet, even if they don’t fully realize it.
Geoff-Aus: The majority of “moral failings” in the US system are because half the population believes that government is bad and using government to solve problems is bad. (But mysteriously, when corporations act badly, that’s just so they can be competitive which is apparently understandable and OK). This is a contrast to other countries that see government as paid for and directed by the people’s interests (which those same folks would call something between communism and socialism). There is a strong skepticism of government in the US that you don’t find to that extent in other developed countries.
alice: I also found the ending to The Good Place to be the most uplifting and appealing version of an afterlife that I’ve ever seen. It still makes me feel serene and happy just remembering watching it with my son.
A friend of mine was telling me about his BIL who left the Church, then cheated on his wife, as if the two things were related. I pointed out that lots of people who aren’t Church members are faithful to their spouses, and if he was going to commit adultery, that was an indictment of his own character. I still believe that. But there is also something to the artificial borders we create in our minds around religious affiliation. If you leave a set of rules (and you see it as having fettered your actions), that can give you license to explore in ways that are sometimes harmful to yourself or others. It most certainly doesn’t have to be that way, but it sometimes plays out that way. The problem is when people abdicate their own moral reasoning to the rules of a community or the instructions from an authority. There is nobody scarier to me than those people for whom one of the best benefits of the Church is being led by “prophets.” When they say that, what I hear is that they don’t take personal responsibility for knowing right from wrong. Instead, they rely on a human authority to do that for them because at some point, they had a spiritual experience associated with the Church. If Church attendance fosters dependence on the Church rather than personal growth and reflection, that’s where Church becomes a substitute for being an actual good person. They have their reward: community approval.
It is interesting that the same people who see the government solving a problem as bad, also abdicate their moral agency to the church, even though the church gives no advice on whether to vote for Trump, for example.
Most people living in poverty. 40 million.
Lowest minimum wage.
I have just read Dan Browns Origin. On the last page he says ” Sweet science will banish the dark religions,…. so the enlightened religions can flourish.”
The enlightened are the ones who teach love and morality, who do not discriminate against women, gays, or anyone else, who teach that we love God by loving our fellows, not obeying them. Who teach the gospel of Christ, without the conservative packaging, and culture of the past. That teach that all truth (including science) is consistent with the Gospel.
In the church we have the restored gospel, and to it has been added dark culture, which detracts, and teaches, fear, obedience, and hate. If we can remove the dark, we may have a future.
“I’m reminded of Elder Christofferson’s comment that the more laws a country implements is a sign it has become less civilized, not more so.”
Would this hold true for religions as well – the more laws/rules it has (or control it tries to exert) are signs that It and its followers are less civilized (or of diminished faith)?
“Would this hold true for religions as well . . .”
Fair point. I guess that would depend largely on the religion, the spiritual state of the person, and some of the specific commandments or requirements.
I obviously don’t believe all religions and churches are created equal. Many superficially exist for the worshiper, but power and money are close seconds. Control would have to be part of the game plan. But with the Gospel and the Church as its vehicle, I sincerely feel its purpose is to help me become more as God and Jesus are, both in this life (mainly through personality, family, and how I treat others) and the life to come. At their core, I feel commandments exist to enhance agency. When taken in the right spirit, they initiate great personal change. I think all true religious laws serve to help the individual change, while many civil and secular laws seek to change the world and circumstances around the individual, or dictate how the individual interacts with the world. There are obviously exceptions to both, some more glaring than others, but when I look at many of the things governments do the Gospel nearly always stands out in contrast in its effect.
We’re all on different levels of our spiritual journey. I’ve always loved the analogy of making one’s way up an hourglass. When we first become familiar with the awe and wonder of the Gospel and the Church and feel the Spirit, the world suddenly becomes full of possibilities. As we take on more responsibilities in the Church or start comparing lifestyles things can admittedly start to feel restrictive. If we push through, keep our family as a priority, and do it for right reasons, the world starts to open up again as our “mind doth begin to expand” and our “understanding doth begin to be enlightened” more than ever before (I often have the upper part of the hourglass tantalizingly in view while a good part of me struggles to get out of the middle part). I sincerely believe at some point keeping the commandments, serving in Church, and all other holy practices are no longer something we do, but something we are. Commandments and laws/rules are simply a matter of perspective from where we stand on our spiritual path.
A favorite saying I once heard was “Where two or three are gathered, a bureaucracy is formed.” The Church is no exception. There are rules here and there, obviously of mixed value, that simply exist to keep the system running as smoothly as possible. I’d like to think if more individuals took greater advantage of the personal change, you’d see a lot of the lesser rules disappear. So yes, to a certain extent, and in a certain limited way, Elder Christofferson’s comment can apply to religion and the Church as well.