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.
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.