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Consider someone who doesn't believe in any kind of reincarnation or perfect punishment after death, an atheist. That is, nothing in the world can impact him/her after his/her death, because, as he/she believes, he/she will completely ceasing existing.

Is it possible for a person like this to be optimistic in the sense of leaving a better world for future generations? If so, how?

I don't see what could prevent this hypothetical person from being selfish all his/her life, knowing that the burden will exist only for future generations and not for himself/herself.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 13, 2022 at 16:11
  • 8
    why care about what happens to your loved ones when you lose your eyes?
    – user63031
    Oct 14, 2022 at 21:25

15 Answers 15

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Consider someone who doesn't believe in any kind of reincarnation or perfect punishment after death, an atheist. That is, nothing in the world can impact him/her after his/her death, because, as he/she believes, he/she completely does not exist anymore.

So your premise is that an atheist may not have any selfish reason to leave the world a better place since they won't be in it. But a theist may have a selfish reason to leave the world a better place because they believe it will benefit them becasue they might be rewarded for good behavior or punished for bad behavior after death.

I don't see what could prevent this hypothetical person from being selfish all his/her life, knowing that the burden will exist only for future generations and not for himself/herself.

Huh? If you're correct, it's the theist whose motives are selfish. Isn't your premise that the theist only does good in this world because they believe that they will be personally rewarded for it or personally punished for being bad?

You are correct that a theist might have an additional selfish motive for being good that an atheist wouldn't have -- the promise of divine reward and the fear of divine punishment.

A person who only avoids raping people and murdering people because they fear that god will punish them is not so much selfish as completely lacking empathy. An atheist can be good out of empathy, generousity, and virtue with no selfish motive whatsoever. Theism adds an additional selfish motive.

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  • And Buddhism aims to remove all selfish motives. (It is much more a psychology than a religion.)
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 13, 2022 at 0:03
  • "So your premise is that an atheist may not have any selfish reason to leave the world a better place since they won't be in it." I don't mind if you point out some selfish reasons to leave the world a better place. Maybe the specific hypothetical atheist changes his hypothetical mind. Oct 13, 2022 at 12:29
  • 3
    I think most people (both atheist and theist) do good things in order to feel better about themselves, which is a selfish motive.
    – user46575
    Oct 13, 2022 at 18:31
  • 5
    @BsAxUbx5KoQDEpCAqSffwGy554PSah - you seem to have missed the point. David isn't saying your premise is necessarily right or wrong, but is following it to its logical conclusion - that atheists who try to make the world a better place for after they're dead must be doing it for selfless reasons. And by extension, that theism is the source of the selfish reason.
    – Glen O
    Oct 14, 2022 at 2:31
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    @BsAxUbx5KoQDEpCAqSffwGy554PSah I'm an atheist and I believe it follows from pure reason that moral principles almost certainly apply to all actors equally and that it is in my selfish interest to do what is actually right for me to do. If I believe it is right for me to selfishly destroy the world, then it must be right for others to do so as well. That seems intuitively to be less likely to be true than the reverse. As my intuition has worked well for me in the past, I selfishly choose to follow it here. Oct 14, 2022 at 4:58
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Aristotle (who wrote well before the rise of the Christian notions of a soul or eternal life) addressed this question in terms of virtue. As he saw it, a community of men were like sailors on a ship, with certain relations to each other, certain skilled acts that need to be performed, certain responsibilities that must be met. If men on a ship act with wanton selfishness the ship will founder and sink; if they act with virtue the ship can sail through any storm. So it is with men in a community.

In this sense, even someone with no thought of an afterlife can care about the continuation of things after his death, because whatever he builds, thinks, dreams, etc can only be carried on by the community he is part of. If he starts to build a world now that he would want to live in, then people he cares about will (perhaps) live in that world even if he can't. To use the apt story (with conscious irony), Moses and thousands of Israelites who followed him never set foot in the Promised Land. They left Egypt and braved the desert for 40 years with the aspiration that someday their people would reach their homeland. That will to aspire is what keeps them from the kind of selfish nihilism you describe.

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  • 6
    Thus the old phrase, "Spaceship Earth".
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 13, 2022 at 0:55
  • "...certain skilled acts that need to be performed, certain responsibilities..." -- ah, you link caring with specialization. This is valid, then for species with lots of specialization, but maybe not as valid for non-specialized ones. Interesting point of view. Oct 13, 2022 at 17:43
  • 2
    Only thing I would add to this is that even if an atheist does not care what happens after death, he's probably hoping that's a long way off. Being reckless today can lead to a loss of quality of life far sooner than death!
    – JamieB
    Oct 13, 2022 at 18:58
  • 2
    @ScottRowe, yes, Aristotle used that old phrase a lot. Oct 13, 2022 at 20:44
  • 4
    “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” — Greek Proverb
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 13, 2022 at 22:03
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An atheist does not have a God to rely upon and no afterlife to dream of. That means making the most of a short existence using the resources available. Any help in life comes from other people not from a God, so it is in the best interests of an atheist to cultivate friendship and cooperation and to ensure that future generations (atheists do have kids) have the same opportunity.

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    @DJClayworth no, it’s about using life to improve the world even if one won’t reap the rewards. “Ensure future generations have the same opportunity” feels like it answers the question.
    – Tim
    Oct 12, 2022 at 19:15
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    On "atheists do have kids", even when they don't, they have family, tribe, nation, species, etc. to care for at varying degrees of closeness. We evolved to cooperate because the less cooperative members of our species tended to die without reproducing, and cooperative folks who failed to reproduce still improved the reproductive success of other members of their family, community, etc. You don't have to be a biological parent to have someone you care about who will outlive you. Oct 15, 2022 at 19:31
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The classification of what is and isn't self, and thereby death as a boundary, is an arbitrary one. Would you ask why an individual cell of your body "cares" about what happens to you after it dies? In some sense it doesn't, because it does not seem to exhibit the high level self-aware activity that the concept of "cares" entails. On the other hand, it does, because it's part of a larger system (your body), and a part which evolved to behave in a way so as to facilitate the continuance of that system after it, as a component, dies.

Most humans experience empathy. This has nothing to do with any (theistic or non-theistic) religion. What this means is that we experience vicarious discomfort at the discomfort we perceive others as experiencing. This makes us, like the cells that make up the systems that are our bodies, parts of a larger system, where we seek to reduce not just the discomforts we experience directly, but those we experience others as experiencing. Since we have seen other people die, and had our reality continue on afterwards with the consequences of whatever things the deceased person left behind, it's reasonable for us to assume the same will happen to others when we die. And thereby, it's reasonable for us to act in ways aimed at reducing the discomfort others might be expected to experience, even after we die.

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I would counter by asking why believing in a god implies optimism? I would argue there are several cults or small religious sects which believe in no afterlife and/or consider the future to be grim. Take Mormonism or Jehovah's Witnesses for example, who believe the rapture and end of the world is bound to happen any minute.

So perhaps we should rephrase the question to assume that believing in this god implies believing in a favorable afterlife and that humanity's future is a good one. In this case why should one we be atheist, or agnostic for that matter? Because a god is not necessary to justify a morality. The morals we have are reasoned, more or less, and therefore have some foundation. In the case of a theist, this foundation is likely a god. However, for an atheist or agnostic, this may be something equally spiritual, such as nature or intuition, or possibly something along the lines of science/logic and the philosophy thereof. It's entirely arbitrary where your source of "moral axioms" come from, but they necessarily exist, whether it be because of a god or not.

One can argue some ultimate truth from which morals are built is much harder to define or articulate if it isn't a god. For example, why not murder anyone you dislike? Well, one may talk about self-preservation and laws and the punishments associated with breaking them, but that's a rather weak answer. More likely, one would simply say "Because I value the livelihood of others. "Why?" "Because they're human just like me and my empathy makes me value them." "Why does that matter?" "Well I don't know it just does man can you please leave me alone?" You get the idea.

The irony is that, while the atheist's morality is less logically "complete"(as it's foundation is unclear), the theist would be a hypocrite to claim that as a fault. Claiming the existence of some supreme being isn't very far-fetched, however there are several logical leaps taken to justify claiming qualities of this god and what they want from you. There is no information or logic to justify these claims and instead they're simply assumed. If you ask why one would assume them however, you'd find it's because the theist was raised to or reasoned they ought to or because it matched what they think of the world, etc.

And suddenly the moral foundation of the theist is just as unclear as that of the atheist's. When confronted with the same questions as the atheist, the theist has the same faults. "Why not murder whoever you dislike?" "Well God says not to." "Why do what God says?" "Because..." And you can see the same problem as before arises. At the root of it all is simply a fault of logic itself - infinite recursion and causality. The very fact that all logic is formed by if-then (causal) statements, suggests that all things come from somewhere; every "then" has an "if"; every "cause" has an "effect". This of course raises the issue of the "first cause", as of course the question of "what caused this" can be asked to any event, statement, or belief. Christianity claims their god to be the first cause, and that this solves the issue. Unfortunately however, simply calling it the first cause does not stop us from being able to ask "where does God come from?"; "What caused this?"

In my opinion, it's all rather arbitrary. It seems to me non-consequential whether your beliefs are founded in theism, atheism, or agnosticism, and instead the important thing is how it impacts your livelihood and that of others. Because, while the foundations of any morals are recursively undefined, I think nearly anyone can agree that the livelihood of ourselves and others is the most important thing there is.

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    As a former mormon, I can attest that they do believe in a rapture, but they dont call it that. They dont think its coming any minute however. Historically mormons have been environmentally conscience, but this latest wave of evangelical conservatism (those that do call the rapture the rapture and believe its coming any minute) has influenced them toward the idea that this planet is a way stop.
    – crthompson
    Oct 12, 2022 at 20:15
  • As a current Mormon, having actively and studiously been all my life, I've never heard such nonsense. Mormons do not -- never have -- believed in the rapture. It is entirely possible for good people to want to leave a better world without needing some god or imagined after-death consequence to motivate them.
    – Dúthomhas
    Oct 12, 2022 at 21:46
  • @Dúthomhas does "in the twinkling of an eye" ring any bells for you? that is rapture theology. In this case being a current mormon doesnt really give you any credentials. You have to step outside to be able to compare it to other religions.
    – crthompson
    Oct 12, 2022 at 21:55
  • @crthompson Apples and tomatoes. First page of google results presents plenty of good reading about what “rapture” means (if anything) to Mormons, which is an entirely different thing than what the vast majority of readers here understand by that word. I find it disingenuous to suggest there is any reasonable similarity.
    – Dúthomhas
    Oct 13, 2022 at 1:43
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    @Dúthomhas FYI linking to google results is fraught with peril. a) they're likely to change over time. b) they're likely to change from person to person based on search/browse history. Oct 14, 2022 at 23:47
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Why should an atheist care about what happens to the world after his/her death?

Each human being cares or does not care about particular things, but there is no reason that anyone should care about any particular thing, including the world. This has nothing to do with being atheist or not and all to do with the two words "should" and "care".

The word "should" here is used to express obligation, and an atheist by definition has no religious obligation.

However, whether someone cares or not is for them to decide. Different people, different attitudes. Some atheists will care, others will not, and for those who care, they will care not out of some religious obligation but just because this is how they happen to be.

Further, is not because people should do something that they do it. Presumably, it is precisely when someone doesn't care that they will be told that they should.

It is also very unlikely that anyone would care about anything just because they have been told that they should.

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  • Interesting. I think that everyone should care. Like what W. Edwards Deming said: "Learning is not compulsory. Neither is survival." But if you want to survive, you must care. Since you don't know when you will die, you have to care always, and don't know who or what will help, about everything.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 13, 2022 at 0:08
  • @ScottRowe "I think" Ok but you may be wrong. It is not because someone thinks we should care that we should. 2. "if you want to survive, you must care." Mr Deming may be wrong. 3. "must" doesn't work like "should". The auxiliary "should" is injunctive, while "must" can be injunctive or factual. It is wrong to say, injunctively, "If you want to survive, you should care", but correct to say "You should care, if you want to survive". "Must" is injunctive in "You must care, if you want to survive" but factual in "if you want to survive, you must care". Oct 13, 2022 at 11:18
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    @ScottRowe Maybe you could ask a question about your idea that we should care, rather than make irrelevant comments on my answer to an unrelated question? Oct 14, 2022 at 10:58
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    Theists don't, strictly speaking, have any religious obligation either, at least not as an objective "should". Christians, for example, want to go to Heaven, and therefore act in a way that they believe would achieve that. Believing that a god exists doesn't objectively obligate you to do what that god wants (although it would be a bit absurd to not opt for Heaven if you believe that's an option).
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 14, 2022 at 12:42
  • 1
    @ScottRowe "if you want to survive, you must care" - the key word there is "if". "Should" or "must" cannot exist without "if" - you need to have some goal that you want to achieve, and the "should" only says what would achieve that goal, and no-one says you must want to survive.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 14, 2022 at 12:45
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I find the "should" in this question rather interesting, as I don't feel that this is a fixed requirement. We may get to a position in the future where the idea that we should look after our (current) planet is no longer relevant (not that I can define what that might be, though clearly I could make up scenarios).

Why do I care about what happens to the world after my death? Because I play for my "team", and my sense of "team" is larger in definition than "me for my lifetime".

There are multiple levels of potential "teams" here with ever larger definitions: Me, my family, my friends, my friends families, people I have met, people I know of, my country... And that's only one path of enumeration, ignoring all the other ways in which we itemise aspects of identity.

To be specific to the question:

  • Helping any team I am on seems more rational than hindering it.
  • Impact on the world feels like a large scale thing, so I choose to think about a large scale team that I am in: Humanity.
  • Humanity as a whole has a goal of survival, which includes living in and with the world and each other.
  • Therefore, it is in my interest to care about the world for the sake of my team.
8

There are plenty of philosophical hoops you can jump through to justify actions that will help future generations after your own death, but I think the real world answer why atheists behave altruistically is pretty simple.

Being an atheist does not take way your innate desire for your life to have meaning. It does not take away your empathy or love. It does not take way from the desire to belong to a family/community/country. And it doesn't not make ice cold logic about physical rewards the sole decider of your actions.

It's both nature and nurture. Humans are social animals, and we help others because most human beings by nature desire to belong to a community and help others. And we help others because we were raised in families and cultures that train us to do so. Religion need play no part. Reasoning need play no part. It's just who we are.

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  • 1
    Yes, atheism doesn't imply nihilism. Oct 14, 2022 at 16:11
5

Hume famously said that "Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger", by which he meant that, if we make abstraction of our emotions it makes sense to prefer a huge damage to everybody else than a small loss to us, since the suffering of others is, after all, nothing to us. It is our emotions, the joy and sorrow we share with other people, that motivate us to sometime make sacrifices for their sake.

This maps to OPs remark: if we consider the fact that death is the end of everything, that any joy or sorrow that comes after the complete termination of our consciousness is nothing to us, there is no reason to care for what will happen after our death. Heck, we might as well set up an atomic bomb to be triggered by our death and destroy the world, since it will be nothing to us anymore.

That is, if we make abstraction of any emotion. But according to Hume we are not motivated by reason. Reason is merely a guide, a way to chose the best course of action when we are moved by desire and emotions.

Empathy, the ability to identify and feel as if they were ours the feelings of others, is an aptitude that has been observed in many animals, including humans. It makes sense from an evolutionary stand point: as a social species, if seeing other members of the group suffer makes me suffer I will try to assist them, resulting in a group solidarity that helps propagate the genes to the next generation.

Empathy is the reason I can't look at my children and say "I don't care what happen to you the second I die". The anticipation of their future happiness makes me happy now, and motivates me to act now, even if the effect will manifest itself after my death.

I heard religious people counter with the argument that it is God who gave me my ability for empathy in the first place, so his existence is a premise of the empathy argument. But I think it's irrelevant to OP's question as, wether god gave me the sense of empathy or not, my ability to use it does not depend on my belief in him (as is obvious, since I do have empathy while being an atheist). So my ability to care for what happens after my death does not depend on my belief in God.

Another reason to care, or at least act like we care is the social contract. People whose life expectancy is bound to expire within the next decade might not have any selfish reason to care for global warming, but the generations who are expected to suffer from it can keep them on check and make them care. Older people, after all, rely heavily on younger people to pay their retirement, provide their health care, etc. Leaving to the younger generation a usable inheritance instead of consuming it while alive is also a way to scratch each other's back.

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  • Hume didn't mean by that what you say he meant, since he went on to say "'Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me" (as quoted in SEP). Besides, it's not true that "the suffering of others is nothing to us"; I don't see how to make a principled distinction between intra-person suffering mediated by the nervous system and inter-person suffering mediated by sound, light etc. (See this answer)
    – benrg
    Oct 13, 2022 at 20:23
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    @benrg it's not a controversial interpretation of Hune's views, just pick any book on the subject or simply follow the provided SEP link. Your quote does not in anyway counter my interpretation: the point is that it is not reason but emotions, moral sentiment that motivates us to move, contrary to OP's assumption. Other's suffering is nothing to us from a purely rational, point of view is what I argue. I specifically added "that is, if we make abstraction of any emotion" and described empathy at length. At this point I think you didn't even read my answer before commenting.
    – armand
    Oct 13, 2022 at 22:30
  • This is possibly why people fear AI becoming powerful: reason with no empathy or value of others. Like the Tet in the movie "Oblivion".
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 14, 2022 at 10:38
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    Hume did not mean "it makes sense to prefer a huge damage to everybody else than a small loss to us, since the suffering of others is, after all, nothing to us." He did mean what you said he meant in your comment. That is not what you said he meant in your answer. You seem to think Hume believes that selfishness is the default behavior when emotion is eliminated, which he carefully explains in the next sentence is not the case.
    – benrg
    Oct 14, 2022 at 16:01
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    @benrg he meant it is not contrary to reason (it makes sense) to be selfish, that reason alone won't prevent us from selfishness, which is what I said. Sure, it's a periphrase, he didn't use exactly those words. But the second sentence in the answer does not leave room for ambiguity. That said, I reckon that reading past the first sentence of an answer is a lot of work.
    – armand
    Oct 15, 2022 at 0:37
4

Après moi, le déluge is a well-known attitude, which is definitely practiced by some members of human society. The attitude reflects giving priority to one's own benefit (one's own survival, pleasure, etc.) than to the benefit of those of the society. Note that there are may be different degrees of this attitude - e.g., one's selfishness may expand to one's family, one's friend's, one's country or even one's race. But I take the extreme case where one does not care even about what happen's to one's family and loved after one's death - because when one is dead, he won't care anyway (in the atheist world).

There are two overlapping classes of reasons why most people do not thinks/behave in this way.

Biological
We are biologically conditioned towards survival of our species. Thus, just like in the animal world, our interest in self-preservation is sometimes trumped by our instinctive desire for preservation of our children or our tribe.

Social
Selfish behavior is detrimental to the other members of the society and these obviously watch for their own self-interest. Thus, the human societies have historically evolved various ways of brain-washing its members into caring about others. Psychoanalysis have extensively analyzed this issue as a conflict between the egi (i.e. the self-interest) and super-ego (socially imposed values). This indoctrination is achieved via various ways: patriotic education, mandating caring for one's family, and, of course - religion, as mentioned in the OP.

3

To love and to care are unrelated to religions or atheism.

Caring is innate and natural, while believing in a religion and also atheism are a rational exercises. Humans love and care for others beings (many other beings) according to their internal processes shaped by eons of tailoring, that have nothing to do with a social coordination of values and morals.

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  • How to love people that don't (yet) exist? Oct 14, 2022 at 12:06
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    @BsAxUbx5KoQDEpCAqSffwGy554PSah That tends to be easy in my experience, at least compared to people who do exist, and thus have flaws to annoy you. Compare Prince Charming to the guy who can't get his dishes in the dishwasher somehow, for example.
    – prosfilaes
    Oct 14, 2022 at 15:05
  • @prosfilaes Good analogy, but Prince Charming is not someone expected to exist in the next generation. More like fairytales-bound. Oct 17, 2022 at 14:31
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Family

An atheist with children lives on, in some sense, through their children. Assuming they have the usual familial affection for their children, they should want their children's future to be as good as, or better than their own life. An atheist without children will still likely have other relatives who continue the bloodline, and said atheist still has a biological imperative to optimize conditions for those related offspring. We can pretend that we are logical, rational creatures, but the reality is that our values are primarily defined by our biology, and our biology optimizes for the survival of our genes and our memes.

Frame Challenge

You simply take it as an unstated truth that religious people have a reason to make the future better than the present, rather than being selfish. But note that atheism has no notion of martyrdom, which is exclusive to religion. Nor does it have a concept of forced conversion, or enslavement. Forcing others to behave in the way that you demand is, in fact, the ultimate manifestation of selfishness. And all of these ways are complete orthogonal to atheism, per se.

So the question you should be asking is: "Should the atheist do all the selfish things that theists do? After all, if so many theists are doing it, it must be virtuous, right?"

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    Re: children - could it work the other way also? People say they don't want to bring children in to a world which seems to be headed for worse. But we don't really know, and people who never exist can't benefit, as well as not suffering. Must we protect people from an uncertain future by refusing to let them 'be'?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 13, 2022 at 0:00
  • "You simply take it as an unstated truth that religious people have a reason to make the future better than the present, rather than being selfish." Fear of divine punishment is part of being theist. Oct 14, 2022 at 12:08
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    @BsAxUbx5KoQDEpCAqSffwGy554PSah It's not, really. Even with just Christianity, "salvation through grace only" disconnects divine punishment from the specific actions of the believer, something that various churches and believers holding that belief wrestle with in different ways.
    – prosfilaes
    Oct 14, 2022 at 15:01
  • @BsAxUbx5KoQDEpCAqSffwGy554PSah when Allah/YHWH says: "Women must cover their heads or else", Divine Punishment is indeed in the cards. But you recognize this as the selfless regulation of an orderly society, while I recognize it as the selfish actions of a patriarchal society trying to keep its women in line. If it were good for the women, they wouldn't need a threat of punishment to do it. Therefore, it appears to primarily help the men who enforce it, thus, is innately selfish. Oct 14, 2022 at 18:12
  • @LawnmowerMan Feminist militancy/gender studies isn't the topic here. No derailing, please. Oct 17, 2022 at 14:32
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Because humans have feelings and can feel guilty. Why wouldn't a human being kill another human being without a "valid" reason? Because they feel "bad". Why wouldn't a human being just leave his own family and kids and look for a younger partner without the responsibility of a family? Because the family gives him/her love and he would feel guilty if he would do so. Why wouldn't he betray his country? Because that would make him feel like a hypocrite and not worthy.

It is all selfish reasons although the outcome is very non-selfish. The same applies to believers as well. The only difference is what adjusts their feelings. Believers will adjust their feelings based on what god asks them to do. Atheists will adjust their feelings based on their experiences/education/society etc.

Why would he care about the life after him/here? Because caring will give him a good feeling and satistification. People always tend to care for something because otherwise will feel miserable. The previous sentence is a very general one but I welcome any counterexample.

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  • Ok. Counterexample not because everything you said was wrong, but because you asked. I am pretty sure that people who went in to World War 2 (like some of my relatives) didn't do it out of guilt or obligation, or even the fear of what might happen if we 'lost', but out of a sort of grim even-mindedness. Like the Japanese Admiral meant when he said, "I fear that we have only woken a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible resolve." They got to see just how terrible, in world-ending brilliance.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 13, 2022 at 1:03
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    We could imagine a range of reactions to going off to war. Some could think it a heroic and glorious situation, but probably not many. A few might be motivated by anger and revenge, but it is not very sustainable. Terror wouldn't work. The vast majority probably would rather not go, but felt that the situation required action, and that although they were likely to survive, death or serious injury were quite possible. The only attitude that could hold up is to feel justified, but not emotional. "Neither the optimists nor the pessimists survived."
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 13, 2022 at 2:04
  • @ScottRowe so you are referring to responsibility? In this case, people who feel responsible feel they have to take an action. Otherwise, they will feel like a hypocrite and then end up disrespecting themselves. What is worse than feeling self-disrespected? What I mean by "feeling" here is not an impulsive reaction but rather a continuous feeling stemming from the core belief system a person has.
    – rando
    Oct 13, 2022 at 2:15
  • @ScottRowe, Voluntary enlistment in the US armed forces was closed as of December 5, 1942 by FDR. 10 million conscripts were taken from the Selective Service System for WW2.
    – user18050
    Oct 13, 2022 at 3:58
  • I would say that if your reason for doing something is basically negative - to avoid feeling like a hypocrite - then that is fear rather than selfishness. Fear in some form probably underlies about 95% of what people do. The folks who went to war weren't doing it because they feared for themselves. Maybe for others, but that could still usefully be part of empathy.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 13, 2022 at 10:25
2

Yes, some people are selfish. Some people need the idea of reward and punishment (or whatever) to do/be “good”. Some people are just plain altruistic and selfless.

People build their identities — and beliefs about their relationship with god/universe/nature/whatever — based on their own personal preferences and experiences, good and bad.

So, to answer the question, INDEED, some people, both atheists and non-atheists alike, do live their lives selfishly.

But many people, in every culture and place on this Earth, also live their lives with desires to make the world around them better for others, as best they understand that.

I would posit that the purpose of this life, however you may construe that, is to grow, like little children, from selfish to willing to bless those around you.

Why? Because it feels great to improve others’ lives!

2

No amount of science or logic or reasoning will ever explain why there is something instead of nothing. That is, no matter what you believe about religion, the question why anything exists at all seems out of reach.

As we look out into space and find mostly (as far as we can tell) lifeless rocks, gas balls, fusion reactors, etc. it makes whatever this blue marble in space is more special and unique. Who knows what it means? Does it matter? It's all we have.

It's a little like my job. I might not work there forever. And when I move on, I likely won't know if what I left behind was valued. Regardless, I want it to be valued and my work to be considered a valuable contribution. I don't know why I feel that way but religion isn't a factor in any way.

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