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A crisis of *lack* of faith?

  1. Aug 10, 2009 #1


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    If I am an atheist, why do I grimace when drowning a caught mouse? If I am an atheist, why do I capture a fly or spider and let it go outside?

    More generally, if I believe that there is no connection between myself and other creatures, whether that be an "eye in the sky" entity, or some form of collective unconsciousness, or any other "larger than myself" phenomenon, why is there any harm whatever in killing a creature?

    Answers I've already dismissed:
    - There is some selfish rationale to maintaining an eco-balance. If we all killed creatures willy-nilly, there'd be no creatures left. Answer: nonsense. This is one mouse; one fly.

    - I am a product of society / of my physiological emotions. It is conditioned into me to shrink from needless death. Answer: That is simply passing the buck, pretending I'm a victim. I should be able to throw off that pressure and believe in - and practice - my own philosophy.

    Do all atheists kill creatures as it is convenient? If not, why not?

    P.S. I really am an atheist, and I really am asking myself why I choose not to kill needlessly.

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 10, 2009 #2


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    Maybe it has to do with wanting to live if the situation were in reverse; some giant creature was going to kill you and you didnt want to die. Interesting subject though...
  4. Aug 10, 2009 #3


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    I was a reluctant, indoctrinated Catholic as a child, and by the time I was in my early teens, I had decided that we cannot know the answers to the big questions, and so became an agnostic even before I knew there was a word for it. Growing up in the woods in a strong French-Canadian/Indian culture (mother's side of the family) I hunted and fished for all my life, practically. Like most cultures with a close connection to nature, we didn't squander resources, nor did we kill needlessly. When I came home with a stringer of trout, that would be our supper, or perhaps the next morning's breakfast along with some eggs and toast. Shooting a deer was a wonderful thing for the family - lots of healthy low-fat meat for cheap - but it was also the low point of the hunt emotionally. I was brought up to kill fish, deer, grouse, etc, for food and to do it respectfully. I can't tell you how many deer I have let walk past me unmolested in the woods because I wasn't confident of a clean kill. I hunt with a single-shot rifle (Ruger Model 1 in .45-70), and have never had a deer take more than a step or two after being hit (momentum, mostly). I kill Japanese beetles because they eat my little fruit trees and berry-plants, but if I catch a spider, wasp, beetle, etc, inside the house, I'll take it outside to release it. I don't have any faith to guide my actions - just a sense of ethics that I extend to most other creatures.

    For instance, I feel better about eating venison that I got in a clean kill than I do eating steaks and burgers from a store. The deer may have seen hard winters and lean times, but at least it was free - not getting fattened up in a dusty feed-lot for slaughter. When possible, I buy beef from a farm about 10 miles from here. Black Angus raised in very large grassy pastures with shade trees and a couple of nice stream-fed ponds for fresh water. That farm-family is very responsible and they treat their stock well.
  5. Aug 10, 2009 #4

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    I'm not sure what it has to do with atheism. Most humans find violence repulsive and I don't think it has anything to do with reason or beliefs. When I have to kill something (like a spider) I don't reason about it, I have a reflex reaction of revulsion - it's more physiological than anything. Emotions like fear and disgust are very powerful and do a pretty good job overriding rationalization ( as anyone with a phobia can attest).

    I suppose you could "throw it off" or even become desensitized if you were in a situation where you had to kill spiders and mice every day. It happens. But I think people vary a great deal. Some people would never get used to it, they would always be horrified.
  6. Aug 10, 2009 #5


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    Mih hit it: It is tough to fathom why you would equate having feelings (whether you or the mouse) with religion (or lack thereof). In particular:

    -You are an athiest.
    -You have feelings.
    -Therefore, having feelings does not require being religious.
  7. Aug 10, 2009 #6


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    Yes, I can see the logic in your circumstance. Minimizing one's destructive footprint is a philosophy that is practical if you spend a lot of time in nature.

    What violence? A spider can be squished in a kleenex. A mouse can be drowned in the sink.

    The revulsion must be to something less concrete than violence.
    But why would the death of a spider cause feelings? As an atheist, I know it has no soul or anythning else of any real value. I lose nothing by stopping its chemical processes.
  8. Aug 10, 2009 #7
    I hope I don't get flamed for this but I am an atheist and a vegetarian.

    I think compassion for animals is a by product of our evolutionary ancestry. As homosapiens it is integral to the way we survive that we feel compassion for anyone else in our society. We are not physically capable animals, but we are good at making tools. Unfortunately this makes us vulnerable in small quantities. Thus the reason why compassion and empathy is so important is because without these, a society cannot survive.

    I postulate that as we grew more intelligent, we realised that it is not just us, but the whole of nature that is crucial in our survival. We trained animals to help us, and by that we made them a part of society. So any compassion and empathy we felt for fellow men was also shared among these animals. As we grew more aware of the world, we realised that it is everything in nature that is essential to our surviving, and not just the animals we train and use. I think evidence for such can be traced back a while, when humans hunted and gathered at specific times to keep the resources levels up.

    If humans were hardwired to kill needlessly, then we would have been extinct a long time ago.
  9. Aug 10, 2009 #8


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    Hm. So your suggestion is that we are driven by an extremely primitive notion that was useful in our distant past but is of dubious utility now.

    Compared to that, "religion", being several orders of magnitude more modern in human development, sounds like the acme of rationality...:devil:

    This does not make me feel any better...
  10. Aug 10, 2009 #9
    If one is religious, why do he grimace when drowning a caught mouse? If he is religious, why do he capture a fly or spider and let it go outside?

    Is it because his religion tell him to do so? If yes, then did the religion invented that or just borrowed it from the existing set of morals/ethics that were already defined before the religion existence.

    Religions did not invent morals or ethics so we don't need to be religious to adhere to those morals or ethics.

    Edit: Oops, wrong forum. I thought this is GD. I prefer not to post in the Philosophy forum.
  11. Aug 10, 2009 #10
    Yes but religion is not what makes people good, this is clear as atheists don't go around killing people. Humans were compassionate before religion came along.

    Unfortunately there are many things that I would rather believe in that will make me feel better, but it's a shame. What I worry about is the last second before death, loosing my thoughts, feelings and ideas forever.
  12. Aug 10, 2009 #11


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    Sorry, I short-cutted the thought-process that inspired the thread. I'll spell it out a little.

    The following that should form the premise of the whole thread:

    Anyone who believes there is a super-natural power / force / entity / energy greater than themselves has an automatic answer to the question "why do we show mercy to creatures?" If we are all connected - in whatever fashion you care to believe, it can simply follow that there is some form of connection between themslves and that creature. It doesn't matter how they think the connection is formed or what form they think it takes, it simply means that they can posit that harm to a creature can affect them (judgment, life-force, loss of collective consciousness, whatever).

    It doesn't mean this has to be the case, it just means the "rationale for mercy/compassion" is a no-brainer for any of those believers.

    My point was the corollary. For anyone who does not believe there is a connection, the rationale for mercy/compassion does not come so easy.
  13. Aug 10, 2009 #12

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    So as soon as you put the spider in the Kleenex, do you lose awareness of what's going on when you crush it? Do you pretend it's a Cheeto you're crunching, maybe? You must on some level there are guts in there, oozing and squishing out. It's a gory act. It's repulsive, whether the creature suffers or not. I don't think it's a huge stretch of the imagination to suppose that humans recoiling from gore (or even the not-so-concrete thought of it) is part of our evolutionary heritage.

    And good heavens, there are much less violent ways to kill a mouse than drowning it in a sink. I don't know how you do the deed, but even if you put the thing in a sock so you can't see it, you probably are cognizant the thing is suffering. Though not as complicated as a human, it does have a mammalian nervous system. "Stopping its chemical processes" is one thing. Causing pain and fear is another. I would be more troubled by the latter with the mouse.

    It could be adaptive for us to feel revulsion at harming something smaller and/or weaker than ourselves especially if it has a cute little face. (I used to draw terrified faces on my vegetarian friend's eggs just for fun.:biggrin:) It might be related to the innate revulsion we feel at the thought of harming our cute little neotonized offspring. Even the dum dums at PETA know that we are much more eager to protect cute little critters than big, ugly ones.

    Overall, I think we are talking about morality. I don't believe that religion and culture create morality in people, they only shape what is already there.
  14. Aug 10, 2009 #13


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    Dave, I think you're equating empathy (mercy is the more religious word for the concept) with faith. Or at least requiring faith in order to feel empathy.

    I believe empathy is totally separate from faith. I can't even look at a picture of a person or an animal in distress. I actually feel that person's or animal's fear and pain...it hurts me, emotionally. Such images can haunt me for days, even months, or longer...I do everything I can to avoid them. Yet I'm completely atheist.

    I don't think a person needs faith in order to feel empathy.

    Or maybe I'm not understanding your thought here...?
  15. Aug 10, 2009 #14
    Both compassion and aggression are survival mechanisms.

    Aggression is used to deal with rivals/prey
    Compassion is used to deal with allies/children

    We are social animals, we benefit and survive in groups, so our compassion instincts are very strong within those groups. But how we end up applying those instincts, how relatively strong they are, and how strong our other competing instincts are, are often a function of circumstance.

    Equating faith/religion with compassion is a huge mistake.

    First, whether a religion focuses on compassion, and many do not, largely has to do with the circumstances under which the religion first developed, not as a function of faith or religion itself.

    Second, both compassion and aggression exist in other species, so this is not something that is uniquely human, let alone, uniquely religious.

    As to your compassion for living creatures outside your species, this is simply a function of the vagueness with which our instincts work.

    You must also remember that our instincts evolved in small low-technology tribal based groups, so they are not well suited to our modern living. Mice are an annoyance to us, but if a mouse is eating the grain you need for the winter months to feed your family, then I bet you'd kill it without much thought. You might even learn to hate mice, if it meant one of your own children died.

    In our modern society, where real survival-competition from animals is almost non-existent, the need to maintain an aggressive stance towards them is removed. Given our strength as a techno-species, they appear weak, and our evolved instincts are to protect the weaker members of our tribe..... ie those who live among us, who are NOT competitors.

    Instincts are not precision tools.

    Why should a atheist choose compassion?
    If you're not in competition, or training for competition, there is no real reason not to.
  16. Aug 11, 2009 #15
    I have to go with what other people have said and questioned, here. How do the ideas of theism/atheism attach themselves automatically to human emotion? To "feel" love and compassion for other living creatures is a chemical reaction within human beings. How does one's lack of belief in a supernatural being attach to that?
  17. Aug 11, 2009 #16


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    Do you make a habit of drowning mice in sinks? It has nothing to do with theism, but I would think most people would feel bad if they went around drowning mice. After all, you are inflicting pain on a living creature for no real reason!
  18. Aug 11, 2009 #17

    Good question. My dog is neither an atheist nor a theist and it shows more emotion and compassion than 10% of the human population. For me a related question is why have dogs stopped eating sheep but guard them against their brothers - the wolves? It seems the environment and the societal group is influencing behavior more than anything else.
  19. Aug 11, 2009 #18


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    In ridding my kitchen of mice (a practical reason for killing them), one was caught but not dead. I had to drown it.

    Why? There's the rub.
  20. Aug 11, 2009 #19


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    Definitely food for thought. Why does a creature that has no theism or atheism show compassion?
  21. Aug 11, 2009 #20
    If he lacks belief in gods, he's an atheist. Slaves tend to view their masters are somewhat likes gods, or devils, so its possible your dog is a theist.
  22. Aug 12, 2009 #21
    Theism or atheism aren't really answers to this question. They are conclusions for questions with no answers.

    Why does any creature show compassion? The object of compassion has some value to the experiencing subject. You may not value the biological functions of a single mouse, but perhaps you are asking this question because you value a single life despite its undesirable function.
  23. Aug 12, 2009 #22
    Evolution. You're wired this way to protect the herd. Societies that don't kill each other off have higher population growth rates. Families that randomly go around killing people... well, they get killed off in retaliation. It's the same reason you don't stab yourself randomly... you've evolved a feeling of pain to keep you from doing stupid things.

    Other animals are somewhat human-like so the feelings get mixed up in our heads, and some of it rubs off on lower life-forms. The "it's kinda like a human" reasoning also explains why we feel worse about killing a dog than we do about killing a spider - dogs are more like humans than spiders are. It is also useful to not kill off your work animals and food supply unnecessarily.
  24. Aug 12, 2009 #23
    I agree with what you said, except for the 'lower' part. We certainly think of our intelligence as putting us higher on the importance scale, and we are of course more important to us. Butt there are lots of species more successful than us. Cockroaches and Ants have been around longer and will probably outlast us. 'Lower' is subjective.
  25. Aug 12, 2009 #24
    Yeah I thought about that as I wrote it :). I didn't mean anything by lower.
  26. Aug 12, 2009 #25


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    Primitive does not equate to "of dubious utility". Notions like sex, love, honor, and respect far outdate the entire human species, but they're as useful in a technological society as they were when they first came into being.

    I'd say that empathy with animals is much more important now, when humans are basically controlling the destiny of life on Earth, than it was in the hunterer-gatherer days when humans were just another insignificant species. Now that we're in the process of causing one of the largest mass extinctions in Earth's history, conservation of resources is more important than ever before, and any instinct that encourages conservation is of enormous utility.
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