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March,1999

Why Err, If You Don't Need To?
by Cliff Walker

Someone writes: "If there is a God, then you and all atheists are in for a real horrible surprise when you die. Why not err on the chance that maybe you're wrong and save yourself from a tormented hell?"

I respect your concern for our welfare, but I think it's misguided. Let me explain.

If I were to act against what I think is true (that is, if I were to lie and become a hypocrite), I still have a very serious problem. The question is not whether there is or is not a god. What we are asked to decide is, Which gods are false gods?

Christians usually tell me that to live a moral life as a Muslim would still result in my being sent to hell. I would be punished for the "crime" of not believing in the correct god. No amount of good living on my part will help the situation.

The only way for me to learn about a god is for someone to tell me -- to make a god-claim. The existence of a god is not self-evident. I can see the sun and feel its warmth. I know it is there. I can't do this with a god; I can't know that a god exists.

But not to believe is the highest crime, earning me eternity in hell. I don't get it.

You and I are not very different in this respect. Of the 5,000 gods that mankind has endorsed, you think 4,999 of them are false gods. You think the others are deceived or are lying. Every god-claim I've ever heard either makes no sense or is mired in hopeless contradiction.

I see a pattern and suspect I'd have encountered a legitimate claim by now -- if one existed. As an atheist, I call all theism falsehood out of respect for truth.

The writer also asks where we find our moral code. "If you have none, then why not promote anything one wishes to do -- including rape, murder, etc. If there is no eternal consequence or judgement for your actions, what difference does it make what you do to yourself or others?"

There are consequences for every act.

As atheists our moral code obviously does not come from theism. Why use falsehood as a guide for living? Would not verifiable truth be a better starting point for facing the tough questions life brings?

You see, if goodness is good because a god says it is good, then there is nothing to stop that god from saying, for example, that it is good to bash infants against the rocks, to commit genocide, or to kidnap women for sexual purposes. (The Bible god has commanded all these atrocities.) In this case, obedience is the only good.

On the other hand, if good is good and evil is evil, and if a god simply knows good from evil, then he becomes a mere conduit for that information. We can know good from evil without any god, because the god is not the source of what is good.

Besides, why do people who think there are eternal consequences for their actions still commit evil? Does this mean that the prospect of punishment does not deter immorality? Either way, then, we are still on our own to know good from evil and to do what is right.

I think it is much better to determine what is true, and to use this information in establishing our moral codes. We all do this as individuals and as societies, because many questions have no clear answers.

Graphic Rule
Copyright ©1999 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon
(One change in capitalization was made from the original.)