A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

For the Feeling Inside


It has been rightly said that the “atheist” can’t find God for the same reason a thief can’t find a policeman.

Ray Comfort

This is not exactly a great analogy, but it is in keeping with the standard I have come to expect from this particular writer. I emailed Comfort a response to this article (to which he never responded, it was about two years ago) and pointed out that, to my knowledge, thieves don’t actually dispute the existence of policemen.

That was a little bit facetious of me, because that wasn’t really the point he was making. He was saying that atheists don’t believe in God, because we don’t want to be held accountable to anyone. We just want to live our selfish, immoral existence, apparently, and not have to answer for it. We don’t want to help anyone else, we just want to look after ourselves. Without a belief in a deity who will reward us for our good deeds and punish us for our crimes, why would an atheist ever do anything nice for anyone else, unless it served his own selfish greed to do so? What possible motivation could there be?

Allow me to digress for a moment before I answer those questions. I work a part time bar job at a local hotel. Last year I was working a Saturday night shift for a wedding in one of the function rooms. My brother was working with me, and a woman whose anonymity I will protect by falsely naming her Dorothy. Once we had stopped serving and there were only residents left, we agreed that not all three of us were needed to close down the bar. As my brother and I had travelled in one car anyway, we agreed to stay to finish off and Dorothy went home. Half an hour later, literally as we were leaving, a very happy, inebriated mother of the bride gave us a generous tip of £30.

The unwritten understanding on our bar is that all tips are split equally between all the bar staff at the end of the night. Normally it’s very modest, just a pound or two each, and Dorothy had taken her modest share of what we thought would be the sum total before she had gone home. She had worked the same shift that we had, save for the last half an hour, and she was completely entitled to an equal share of the tip. There was no question that we could easily have split it between the two of us and not told anyone about it, and she would never have known.

Neither of us even suggested it. We instantly agreed to take £10 each, and that the next one of us who was working would give Dorothy her £10 share. It happened to be me who was working next, and when I gave Dorothy her £10 and explained how it had come about, you would have been forgiven for thinking she had just won a multi-million pound lottery jackpot. Beaming from ear to ear, she openly told me “you should have kept it – that’s what I would have done!”. She was clearly elated, but it wasn’t just the money, it was the fact that we could have kept it for ourselves and chose not to. That is not intended to sound boastful. Far from being something about which to boast, I consider it to be what any decent, self respecting person should have done in the same situation – anything less would have been utterly reprehensible.

We didn’t give her the money to please God, or to avoid going to Hell, or because a book told us to, we did it because it was the right thing to do. Ebonmuse, over at Daylight Atheism, has a moral system which he calls Universal Utilitarianism, of which I’m a subscriber. It holds as an absolute that the action which leads to the greatest actual and potential net happiness, and the minimum actual and potential net suffering, assuming that all concerned parties are aware of all of the available facts, is always the morally correct thing to do. Had my brother and I decided to keep that money and not tell anyone, Dorothy would never have been any the wiser, but that deception would not have been a sound foundation on which to make a moral decision. Additionally, our extra happiness as a result of the extra £5 each would have been tempered with a feeling of guilt about our crime. And although Dorothy would not have been aware of the happiness on which she had missed out, that loss can still be factored in to the equation as an opportunity cost. With Dorothy being aware of the tip, splitting the money equally between the three of us was undoubtedly, objectively the choice that lead to the greatest amount of net happiness. Although my brother and I had £5 each less than we would have done had we kept it all for ourselves, all three of us were £10 better off than we were in the first place.

But, and here is my real point, add on to that Dorothy’s supplementary happiness at being the receiving party of a good moral decision, and our happiness at having carried out that decision. Although it was the right thing to do and I would have felt nothing but guilt had I done anything else, I felt a warm, glowing feeling inside as Dorothy smiled at me in grateful disbelief. I felt a surge of happiness, simply as a consequence of her happiness. And that’s why an atheist can do nice things for other people – the warm, glowing feeling inside.

Former Utah Jazz basketball player John Stockton, who to this day still holds the NBA record for the most career assists, once said (paraphrased, I can’t find a link) “a great shot makes one player happy, but a great assist makes two players happy”. I remember from my basketball playing days the same warm, glowing feeling inside after setting a team mate up with a good pass. And I get the same, warm glowing feeling inside after I hold a door open for someone, or give some loose change to a homeless person. That’s why an atheist can be selfless, not for God, but for that feeling inside.

I opened with a quote from Ray Comfort. I’ll close with the words of someone I think was infinitely more enlightened.

Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.

Robert Green Ingersoll

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15 Responses to “For the Feeling Inside”

  1. “It’s better to give than to receive.”

    While that’s in the Bible (Acts 20:35) it’s hard to accept that humanity had not already figured that out long before it was written. More likely, the writer was acutely familiar with the sentiment, having experienced the warm fuzzy feeling you experienced with Dorothy, and generations of humans before him did, and he simply added it to Acts, and ascribed it to Jeebus.

    Hitchens perceptively notes also that the Jews certainly knew that killing, theft and lying were not kosher long before Moses told them those were “new” commandments after returning from his mountain climbing expedition. They would not have gotten to where they were as a people if they didn’t.

  2. Hitchens perceptively notes also that the Jews certainly knew that killing, theft and lying were not kosher long before Moses told them those were “new” commandments after returning from his mountain climbing expedition. They would not have gotten to where they were as a people if they didn’t.

    That’s a very useful idea. Thanks to you and tobe38, as I’m currently trying to ask awkward questions on a Christian friend’s blog. Recently he’s been pushing the argument from morality. There are lots of holes in it, but this gives me some more ideas. 🙂

  3. Another great post Tobe; beautiful in its elegance. I especially loved this:

    “a great shot makes one player happy, but a great assist makes two players happy”

    Football’s my game, but it still holds true. This is a great line.

    On the grander scale, the sheer fact that atheists behave decently PRECISELY BECAUSE there is no one to appease or fear, it EXACTLY why it’s a morally better position.

  4. Nice post. I hope the falsely-named Dorothy reads your blog.

  5. Fantastic post, Toby. 🙂 I was a little shocked by Dorothy’s admitting so openly that she would have kept the money, if she had been in your place. But splitting it with her was the right thing to do, regardless – and who knows, it may encourage her to give more consideration to doing the right thing if she’s ever in a similar situation. By knowing that others showed her a kindness that she could appreciate, I hope it will make her more willing to perform similar acts herself in the future.

  6. @ Ebonmuse

    I was a little shocked by Dorothy’s admitting so openly that she would have kept the money, if she had been in your place.

    I was too at the time, but to be fair, I think it may have been tongue-in-cheek.

  7. As a tangent…..You have said previously that your mom was a Christian. You live in a nation/culture that has been influenced by Christianity. Do you think that you would have made the same decision if those influences had not been poured into you culturally? Even if you did, would you have felt as strongly about it?

    I am asking seriously, not sarcastically.

  8. I’m astonished how few atheists know about moral development. Not that they (we, mostly) haven’t got any ourselves, but rather, we don’t know the work that’s gone on in the field of child development. I even took a course in moral development in college (mumble) years ago.

    As you might imagine, some people are more morally mature than others. One halfway decent scale is Kohlberg’s. Your friend Dorothy is at stage 1 of that scale. Actually there’s levels under one. Piaget showed that a toddler of a certain age won’t do a “bad thing” if mommy is actually watching, but will do it if mommy leaves the room. Later on they react to the threat of punishment.

    I like to be generous, so I’ve always said that the problem with religions based on reward and punishment by an all-seeing god is that they don’t take people’s moral development into account. People who’ve passes way beyond reward and punishment (Kohlberg’s stage one) have to pretend they’re at that level.

    But if your friend Dorothy is a churchgoer, perhaps we see a case of religion actually suppressing people’s growth in moral maturity.

  9. I got a little echo of that warm feeling inside just reading this. It was a nice bit of sunshine on a Sunday winter morning 🙂

  10. @ Liza

    You live in a nation/culture that has been influenced by Christianity. Do you think that you would have made the same decision if those influences had not been poured into you culturally?

    Has my morality been influenced by my Christian mother and a heavily Christian society? Certainly. The question is, where did the heavily Christian society get their morals from? They certainly don’t come from the Bible. For example, Britain has now become extremely tolerant of homosexuality, despite the Bible explicitily forbidding it. When it comes to the crunch, people don’t follow the Bible, they follow their own sense of what is right and wrong.

    I’ve intended to show in this post that religion is not at all necessary to be a good person (just good, not perfect). It may well say in the Bible that we shouldn’t steal, but that’s not why I don’t steal and, it’s not the reason that most people don’t steal.

    @ Rev. Bob

    Forgive me, but I’m not entirely sure what point you’re arguing? Do you agree with the main point of my post, that being that we don’t need religion to be good people?

    @ Lynet

    Thanks 🙂

  11. I think, at best, that religion reinforces morality (along with a lot of immorality). But to say that it originates morality implies that humans were not moral until the advent of organized religion. I seriously doubt that.

  12. Forgive me, but I’m not entirely sure what point you’re arguing? Do you agree with the main point of my post, that being that we don’t need religion to be good people?

    I agree with the point, and in fact think that, because religion often doesn’t even have a vocabulary for going beyond the reward and punishment level of morality (a very low level of moral maturity), it doesn’t cope well with people who’ve matured beyond that level, and may actually stifle their moral development by keeping the discussion stuck at that level.

  13. @ Rev. Bob

    You make an excellent point, and I completely agree.

  14. Really good points.

    Hijacking “morality” is one of the shadiest power-seeking enterprises of religion. Why is there is a necessary – even any – connection between behaving ethically and believing in an invisible man?

    It’s very hard for any of us to accept that we are only here now.
    I think it’s probably only people who see that what we have now is really all there is, who can develop any adult morality.

    We know that acts have consequences. That confessing our sins and doing penance isn’t going to undo what we do. Prayer can’t undo what we do. Sacrificing goats won’t work either.

    This is not a claim that non-believers are generally more ethical or cleverer than the believing masses. I am just suggesting that, ethically, atheists are more “grown up” and can make moral judgements – like the tip-sharing – on the basis of our own values rather than a list of rules.

    Everybody else does this too, in reality, but then we win because we don’t have to be so hypocritical.

    Plus we don’t have to hate ourselves when we can’t reconcile what we really do with what the rules tell us to do.

    We might feel bad for betraying our OWN values, but that’s just between us and our own consciences, not between us and a dangerous omnipotent lunatic with smiting capacity.

  15. @ Heather

    I completely agree. Religious morality, like religion in general, is infantile and two-dimensional. There is no flexibility which, as you say, leads inevitably to hypocrisy. Atheistic morality is about taking responsibility and evaluating, not just trying to follow a set of rules to earn brownie points or avoid detention. Well said. 🙂


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