MANN TALK: An Agnostic Without Problems

by Perry Mann
Perry Mann
Perry Mann
In a column titled “A problem with atheism” a believer writes: “I believe in God because not believing in him would force me to believe in something far less credible than his existence: the nonexistence of a great many things whose existence seems certain.” He proceeds to list those certain things: free will, morality, natural design, and human uniqueness.

Before I debate the believer, I call on Sigmund Freud to assist me.  The following is an excerpt from “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker. “Sigmund Freud immodestly wrote that ‘humanity in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its naïve self-love: the discovery that our world is not the center of the celestial spheres but rather is a speck in a vast universe, the discovery that we were not specially created but instead descended from animals, and the discovery that often our conscious minds do not control how we act but tell us a story about our actions.’”  

Who would not like to believe that God made us in his image, gave us free will, made us conscious of right and wrong, forbade us to choose wrong lest we suffer hell forever, sent his Son to die for our sins and promised us sinners a seat in heaven if we believed in the Son and washed away our sins with the waters of baptism? Who would not wish to believe so facile, so felicitous, so comforting a theology? No one.  

On the other hand, who would want to believe: That man is only an animal evolved like all other animals from primal ponds, is absolutely no different in kind from all the other forms of life and is just a reflection of nature? That man has no free will but only a consciousness of what he thinks he freely does? That morality is relative in the sense that what is good for a specific man is moral and what is not good for him is evil, regardless of how good or bad his conduct is with respect to foreign people and other life?  That man has no soul? And that the only life after death is nature’s recycling of man’s remains? Few; for man’s self-love and yearn for immortality prompt him to scorn any attempt to question his divine origin and to rage against the suggestion that after death there is nothing.  

Science has convinced me that one’s acts are not freely chosen but are determined by his genetic and physical environment. Man is just conscious of his acts and has the illusion of having chosen to do them by a will that is free. Man’s nature and his environment are not his choosing and neither are his actions that spring from his nature and environment.  

            The believer asserts that without free will there is no morality. I question the assertion. The basis of morality is empathy and altruism, both of which traits are innate and built into the genes. Otherwise, there would be no mother love, no altruism, no self-sacrifice. I have seen a partridge whose brood I uncovered with a mowing machine fake a broken wing in order to divert my attention from her young at great danger to herself.  She had no free will but she acted morally. Indeed, if nature had not built morality into life many species would have long since become extinct if they by chance appeared. Morality doesn’t come from a supernatural entity but from nature. It appears in many species and is there for the same reason it is in man: the perpetuation of the species.  

            Natural design is a refuge and fortress fundamentalists have retreated to in the advance of science. Doubtless, it is just another name for their God, an anthropomorphic entity that in seven days a few thousand years ago created everything, put all this universe together, established Eden, allowed the Serpent to seduced Eve and then evicted Adam and her. Whereupon, stricken with guilt He sent His Son to die for man’s sins to soothe His conscience by atoning for the trap and punishment suffered by the first couple.  

            The believer has concluded that humans are not just different in degree but different in kind from all other life, because humans can do things that other animals can’t. He must never have had any association with other animals or he would never make such an incredible assertion. Every species has a niche and has through natural selection adapted so to its environment that it has survived and flourished owing to its ability to do things that no other animal can do. Fish swim, eagles fly, antelopes leap, ants build and govern, bees make honey, plants flower exquisitely. Man thinks he is unique for the same reason that he thinks he is made in God’s image: naïve self-love.  

            I have no problem with seeming certain that there is no anthropomorphic God, that there is no free will, that there is no transcendental morality, that there is no natural design except nature’s, and that man does not differ from other life in kind but only in degree. I have no problem, because what I believe seems to me to be the truth and seeking the truth has been my avocation and delight for most of my life. If what I believe is truth, I am not certain. But to be true to myself, I must conduct my life in accordance with truth as I see it, albeit within the confines of law and common sense.                                                                                                * * * 

  Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a columnist for Huntington News Network. He lives in Hinton, WV. He  was born in Charleston, WV in 1921. For David M. Kinchen's review of "Mann & Nature," a collection of Perry Mann essays, click:  
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