Sunday, December 14, 2008
[from "Give a Little Whistle" sung by Jiminy Cricket]
I have noticed that many atheists claim that they are good people even though they don't believe in God or the Torah, because they follow their conscience and their conscience tells them to behave properly.
My question is: Where does the "conscience" come from? Is it something instinctive? If so, then why are primitive societies so violent? It would appear that the only true instincts which people have are to survive and to reproduce by any means available.
My guess is the following. I believe that what we call "conscience" is in fact a residue of religious morality.
For example, let's say a person is raised in a very religious Jewish home and then later in life he decides to become an atheist. As a child he was trained to respect his elders, to share with friends, to be generous and patient, etc. Even after he has a abandoned Judaism, he may continue to feel guilt if he transgresses these values. In other words, he has not entirely abandoning his earlier beliefs; he may choose to retain certain ones which he feels are not too burdensome. In a similar way, he may continue to light a menorah on Hanukah and go to a synagogue on Yom Kippur. His children likewise will be taught by him that it is "bad" to lie and steal and that it's "good" to help others and they too will have a "conscience" although probably it will be weaker than what their parents had. Gradually, these concepts will fade and disappear, just as the Jewish rituals disappear after a few generations.
I think that when a secular person asks himself “Is this the right thing to do? Is it ethical? Is it moral?” he is basically asking “Based on the residual religious beliefs which I still, perhaps subconsciously, retain, am I allowed to do this or not?” For secular people, morality is therefore often a complicated and controversial subject.
This helps us to understand places like for example Sweden, which seem to be very secular yet have a fairly low crime rate. The grandparents of today's Swedes were devout Lutherans and those values have not yet disappeared completely. Neither have Lutheran religious practices - Christmas, baptism, church weddings and so on are observed by almost all Swedes as far as I know. On the other hand, in countries where religion has been forcibly uprooted, like for example Russia, we find a society which includes so many people with no conscience that it almost cannot function. Likewise the United States, after a couple of generations of secularism, is becoming a "Generation Me" with a growing number of psychopaths.
A true and complete atheist should consider humans to be merely meat machines and he should never feel guilt. This explains, for example, the increasing popularity of stranger homocides and serial killing in the United States.
Posted by jewish philosopher at 10:36 PM