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Atheism, human nature, morality

Atheist Empathy, or “How I Got My Conscience Back.”

I’m going to tread in dangerous territory with this entry.  For one thing, I’m going to lay bare a lot of the inside of my brain.  And I’m always a little wary of making myself too vulnerable in front of the impersonal, anonymous world of the internet.  For another, I’m going to admit something that will make a lot of Christians do a little happy dance — something that might make some non-believers a little uncomfortable.  But I’m going to end up in a very beautiful place.  I hope my gentle readers will take the whole journey with me, and quote mine this piece sparingly.  ‘Cause I’m going to give the haters a couple of gems.

Here’s the first.  I believe an atheist materialist morality begins with the assumption that no human has “inherent value.”  However, I believe that beginning with this assumption allows us to reach an endpoint of human empathy and sympathy unattainable by theists.  More directly, I believe that beginning with no intrinsic value in life, we can actually have MORE respect and love for our fellow man in the end.

Here’s another gem for the haters:  I believe that humans are nothing more than very intelligent animals.  If we think of them as “lab rats” — that is, detach ourselves from empathy and examine their thoughts and emotions as nothing more than reactions to their environment, they become incredibly predictable.  More importantly, we discover that what we think of as a human’s “character” is little more than an aggregate of their (predictable) reactions to environmental stimuli over which they had no control.

In a nutshell, this is what a lot of social science is all about.  We do studies where we get a large sample of subjects, put them through some sort of environmental manipulation, and observe the results.  The (in)famous Milgram Experiment is a great example.  The people who “shocked” their “peers,” even when they were apparently in great pain and distress?  They were not bad people.  They were just people.  And if we were to replicate the experiment a hundred times, we’d probably get very similar results in all cases, even though we’d have a completely new group of subjects every time.  And that’s exactly the point.  The Milgram Experiment and studies like it prove that each of us really is very much like all the rest of us.

And therein lies the key to unlocking human empathy.  And for me personally, it’s how I got my conscience back.  When I was a Christian, well… there’s no easy way to say this… I was a real prick.  I believed what I was told about the nature of good and evil.  They were intrinsic qualities, like “green” or “heterogeneous.”  I also believed that men were inherently evil, and that only by accepting Jesus as their savior could they become good.

The logical conclusion of these two beliefs is simple:  Anyone who is not a Christian is an evil person.  And that’s what I believed.  I also believed that the Holy Spirit worked in people’s lives, giving them constant invitations to “come to Jesus.”  I was taught — and believed — that a person who heard the salvation story and rejected it was mired in the world.  In evil.  In the clutches of Satan.

So… logically, if someone had heard the Christian story and rejected it, they were a special kind of evil person.  Not like those poor ignorant evil people in places where missionaries were bringing the word of Jesus.  No.  Pretty much every American had heard of Jesus.  They’d been to church.  They’d had their chance.  And they rejected it.  That meant that they were not just evil.  They were reveling in evil.  They were spitting in Jesus’ face.

And since I was a child of Jesus, they were effectively spitting in my face.  So I didn’t like them.  At all.  And I treated them as if I didn’t like them.  Which of course meant that they didn’t like me.  Which proved that they were bad people.  Because of course… I was a child of God.  Not perfect, but at least “good.”  As opposed to those people.  Who were “evil.”  I believed — as I’m sure many other Christians believe — that I was “better” than non-Christians.  Not better because of anything I’d done… it was Jesus’ sacrifice.  Jesus’ influence that made me better.  Nevertheless, I was better.

In short, if I could transpose myself from my pre-internet Christian life to today’s America, I would probably be one of the thousands of Christians spewing venom and hate at atheists for the WTC suit.  I would be a hater, because I grew up just as indoctrinated as all of them, and I saw the world the same way they see it.  My reaction would be predictable.  Because I’m really just another lab rat.  I’m no better than them.  I’m just reacting to a different environment.

And THAT is why I don’t hate them.  They hate me, and I know that.  They think I’m going to hell, and that I deserve to get there as fast as possible.  Some of them would probably kill me if they thought they could get away with it.  I know all of that.  And I don’t hate them back.

These days, I don’t believe in good and evil.  Not as intrinsic qualities.  So obviously, I don’t believe people are inherently good or evil.  They’re just people.  And here’s the magic truth:  If we took the pool of Christians that are spewing hate at atheists, and replaced them with exactly the same number of random people, all of whom would have been raised exactly the same way, and experienced all the same events, I firmly believe that there would be virtually the same number of people spewing exactly the same hate.  They’re not spewing hate because they’re evil.  They’re spewing hate because that’s what lab rats — I mean…. people — do when you put them in that particular maze.

And if you took a thousand of those haters, and magically put them in my shoes — raised them in exactly the same environment, exposed them to exactly the same events I experienced, the same books, the same friends — I believe that most of them would be atheist activists.  Lab rats — humans — who run through my maze end up like me.

Of course, there are differences between people, and genetics do play a huge role in shaping certain parts of our personality.  I like to think that my lifelong ability to spell words accurately after seeing them only once or twice is largely genetic.  (I’ve almost never used spell check.  Never had to.)  I also think that my outgoing personality is genetic.  My dad was exactly the same way.  But spelling ability and outgoing personalities aren’t unique to me.  Lots of people have both.  Lots of people test at my IQ level.  For anything I can think of about myself, it’s very well distributed through the human population.  I am simply not unique in any appreciable way.  Which is why a thousand other people would end up very similar to me if they ran through my maze.

So I can’t take a lot of credit for being me.  And I also can’t hate on people who aren’t like me.  I suspect that if I ran their maze, I’d be like them.

And that’s where empathy, sympathy, and conscience are born for the atheist materialist.  At least that’s where they come from for this atheist materialist.  And since I’m not special in any appreciable way, I think it’s highly likely that most atheist materialists who’ve run similar mazes to mine have very similar consciences.

And ironically, this worldview has given me the ability to do something I used to think I was doing.  I find that I have a very difficult time hating people, even when they do things I really hate.  Oh, I still like or dislike people, just like you.  And I certainly don’t think everybody’s “equal.”  There are people I can’t stand being around.  Whose political opinions make me angry.  Whose hatred of my beliefs makes them intolerable to be around.

But I just can’t seem to hate them.  Because I can imagine that I might be very much like them had I lived their life.  That is empathy.  And because I have empathy, I have sympathy for people who are suffering.  I can imagine what it would be like to be them (empathy), and imagine that I might well have acted a lot like them, and be feeling exactly the same hurt they are feeling.  So I feel bad for them.  (Sympathy.)  And because I have sympathy and empathy for them, I just can’t bring myself to do bad things to them, to take advantage of them, to make their situation any worse.  (Conscience.)  Because I can imagine myself in their shoes, I often find myself compelled to do things for them to try to improve things for them.  Even when it involves me giving up something of my own.  Even if I don’t think it’s fair, or even if I don’t think it’ll have much long term value.  I do it anyway.

And that’s why I’m an activist.  And why I support welfare.  And healthcare.  And separation of church and state.  And why I’m an ardent supporter of gay rights even though I’m straight.  And women’s rights even though I’m a man.  Because in all cases, I can imagine how I would feel if I were in their shoes.

I couldn’t do that when I was a Christian.  I couldn’t be empathetic when I truly believed that I was surrounded by evil.  Since I now believe that I’m not special — and that nobody else is, either — I imagine that most other lab rats — er… people — who are currently running a similar Christian maze to the one I ran are equally incapable of true empathy.

I like who I am today more than I liked my Christian self.  I experience a joy in connecting with other people that I never had before.  I also feel sorrow more profoundly than I used to.  I cry at movies now.  I am sometimes thrown into fits of depression when something really bad happens to a lot of people.  The thing is, I wouldn’t change it for anything.  I wouldn’t go back to my Christian version of the world, where I was isolated from anyone who wasn’t a part of my particular theology.  That place leads to selfishness, callousness, and disregard for the suffering of others.  I know because I lived there.  For me, there is a profound beauty in the realization that when I suffer vicariously, I am moved to action.  I have a love of my fellow humans — all of them — that I could not have imagined when I saw all Muslims as followers of Satan, and all atheists as… well… the worst kind of evil.  Today, any human suffering makes me suffer, and the best way for me to feel better is to help others feel better.  Empathy has become the ultimate conscience.  No need for a deity to tell me to be good.  No threats necessary.  I try to make the world better because I see myself in everyone around me.

And if it seems like I’m a bit presumptuous in “assuming” how other people feel, then I’m sorry.  But ironically, if I’m wrong about this, it means that I really am unique.  For some reason, nobody else feels things the way I do, or reacts the way I do.  And I just can’t work up the hubris to believe that I’m unique.  Not anymore.  And if someone has run my maze and feels much differently, I’d love to hear their story.  I’ll try to empathize.


7 thoughts on “Atheist Empathy, or “How I Got My Conscience Back.”

  1. This assumes that Christians and atheists get their morality, empathy etc.. from different places. They don’t. A Christian is just as capable as feeling empathy and compassion as an atheist. People need to stop copyrighting morality. As I’ve said there is nothing unique about religious or secular morality.

    The ironic thing is that I agree with you that humans are just intelligent animals, and are predictable….which makes me disagree with a lot of what you say.

    Also, I think you’re missing the mark on environment. Studies on mono-zygotic twins growing up in different environments showed remarkable similarities decades later.

    In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised if people who went through what you did, and some turned out differently. It happens all the time, do you have siblings? But yes, environment does play a role, but don’t forget, we create our environment.

    That said, I can relate to feelings of Christians, I was Christian too. But I did have empathy when I was, and I bet you did too, unless you had major brain surgery after you de-converted.

    Posted by Alison | August 25, 2011, 3:31 pm
  2. I would also like to point out that Religiousity, is a positive predictor of charitable giving, even if you exclude religious causes, such as Churches, pot lucks etc….

    So I don’t buy the “can’t feel empathy” thing

    Posted by Alison | August 25, 2011, 3:33 pm
  3. In my ebook on comparative mysticism I wrote a chapter about morality and conscience, called “Duel of the Dual.” Here is an excerpt:

    “Conscience” is a misused and misunderstood word. “Have you no conscience?,” ask people of a person who does something which seems to them to be so obviously wrong. Each person has a dual conscience and, occasionally, these two sides do engage in a duel.

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned…” Individual moral development is based on both.

    Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Sri Aurobindo said “…true original Conscience in us [is] deeper than constructed and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which points always towards Truth and Right and Beauty, towards Love and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us.” Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not.

    Posted by Ron Krumpos | August 25, 2011, 10:19 pm
  4. Knowing one’s self, being one’s self, living one’s truths and truly liking the person you have become is indeed the ultimate happiness. Consciousness is the ultimate conscience.

    Posted by Stacey Gray | August 26, 2011, 12:22 am
  5. Fantastic post! What a great way to weave together a discussion about morality, free will, and how our beliefs about such affect our kindness to others.

    And thanks for the honesty 🙂

    Posted by Tim Martin | August 28, 2011, 1:09 am
  6. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    Posted by Edwin Rutsch | August 28, 2011, 1:21 pm
  7. Ron, I don’t think “right and wrong” are learned traits.

    I think it was Paul Bloom who did experiments with infants and found that they had an idea of right and wrong well before environmental influence could take it’s toll.

    Posted by Alison | September 3, 2011, 3:32 pm

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