Sketch for a Lecture at an Atheist Youth Camp

by Philip McPherson Rudisill
9/4/2010 and edited 5/27/2017

Preliminary Note

Here I am trying to put myself into the thinking mode of an atheist youth instructor, and in doing so in practice one of Kant's three admonitions for right thinking: think for yourself, think consistently with your self, and think in the place of another. Here I am seeking to think in the place of an honest and rational and consistent atheist would think. And then I want to explore how to convey that thinking to some older youth at an imaginary atheist summer camp so that they might express atheism in their own lives in their own way. This idea of a lecture was inspired by an article appearing in the Anderson, SC, newspaper on August 21, 2010.

The introduction referred to is an essay on Sagan and Kant concerning the relationship of God and morality. In this lecture I will be using some extreme examples on occasion in the belief that such extremes assist the audience in more readily recognizing the core principle. See also the disclaimer at the end of this essay.


We establish that "right and wrong" are of no more objective meaning than "right and left", and all that counts for the atheist is "smart and dumb" which has meaning only with respect to one's individual happiness. Conformity to the Golden Rule (which is justified by Uhl's "Enlightened Selfishness") leads on average to a greater personal happiness. And this is especially true when evolved feelings and emotions are factored in. But sometimes this rule calls for actions which are dumb (contrary to personal happiness) and in that case are to be rejected by the logical and rational atheist.

Notes For Lecture


First of all let's understand what we mean with theism and atheism. Theism is a belief in God and living accordingly, while atheism denotes a belief that there is no God, and then also living accordingly. Thus we are speaking of a practical belief, a belief that affects the way we live.

Now as atheists we pride ourselves in being logical and rational. Accordingly we need to understand from our introduction that as atheists, in our rejection of the existence of God, we also remove any objective meaning to the moral law.* For the atheist, therefore, the moral law is even of less importance than traffic laws, for the traffic laws at least include punishments inflicted for violations via the police and the courts.

* There are two connections between God and the moral law, the traditional and Kant's. According to the traditional, God exists and issues forth the moral law and that is the source of the moral. According to Kant, the moral law is given independently of any notion of God, and the purpose of the moral action is the Highest Good, i.e., a state of moral perfection coupled with a commensurate perfection in happiness. The attainment of moral perfection cannot be accomplished during earthly life and so a life beyond the grave is necessary. Likewise a God is needed in order to compel nature to provide the degree of happiness called for by the degree of moral perfection attained. Remove immortality and God (as Sagan calls for in the introduction to this lecture), and you remove the possibility of the Highest Good.** Remove the possibility of the Highest Good and you remove all purpose to the moral act. Remove all purpose to the moral act and you render the moral act inane and a mere vanity. And if the moral act is inane and a vanity, then the only reason for any compliance is animal pity*** and/or fear of the police. And if it is animal pity, then certainly therapy would be called for; and if the police, then caution. And so in both cases, the traditional and Kant's, the removal of God is also the removal of any objective meaning to the moral law.

** The Highest Good is also called Justice, where happiness is apportioned in a manner commensurate with one's moral deserving for happiness.

*** Animal pity will refer to the way most humans feel with regard to the wellbeing of disabled people as well as such animals as dogs, cats and horses. There is very little pity with respect to roaches, ants, etc.

Let's look briefly at the two main ways that reason helps us think and act logically and rationally.*

* These two were presented by Kant in his Groundwork to the Metaphysic of Morals, along with a third, the moral law, which we, as atheists, have already rejected as unworthy of consideration by virtue of our rejection of God, and as was spelled out in the introduction and in the previous note. These three together are, according to Kant, the contribution and effect of practical rationality.

Rules of Efficient Construction.

Here we are concerned with efficiencies in our activities. For example it would not be efficient, and thus not rational, to go to the store for food for a charcoal cookout and not to acquire the necessary charcoal. Or to obtain the food and to lack a grill for broiling it. Nor would it be rational to purchase ice cream without a means of keeping it frozen until ready to eat it.

The value of this sort of thinking should be self-evident for any person who wants to be logical and rational. All it says is: you are to achieve your goals in the most efficient manner possible. No justification is necessary for this sort of thinking, for it is obvious upon the least reflection. It is rational.

Counsels of Prudence.

Next we have the counsels of prudence which can advise us with regard to one's own personal happiness. I say advise and not command, for no one knows what constitutes happiness with any certainty, and there is much groping and trying of this and that.* For example, an obvious counsel is: work and save while you are young and healthy to be prepared when you are old. That's good advice, but only on average; for it is not absolute and it does not hold for the person who has no expectation of reaching old age or, if so, then not for the person who anticipates being able to fend well enough for himself at that time. These counsels are valid and self-evident, but only on average and generally speaking, but not universally and absolutely.

* Not only does happiness depend upon the particular individual, but this very often changes through time anyway. And sometimes what is thought to bring happiness is found not to do so when the desired state is actually attained.

Surely one of the best counsels of prudence has been formulated by Stephen Uhl with his Golden Rule of Enlightened Selfishness, namely: treat others as you would rationally expect and want to be treated if your positions were reversed. This marvelous rule has the great benefit of incorporating most of the elements which can affect our happiness in a negative and positive way, all the way from criminal laws to traffic laws and to rules of personal conduct regarding other people. This rule would have us acting in a society in a way both to have easy minds about how we treat people* and to provide a framework for all to prosper in, thus also ourselves. The essential justification of this rule is that we are personally better off by treating others well and because those people will tend to treat others well also and that will include us either directly, or else indirectly by making for a happier society including then ourselves and those whom we like. Now while this rule has very much to commend itself, still it is not absolutely certain with regard to one's happiness and can only be recommended or counseled. Indeed Uhl can only justify it as resulting in greater personal happiness on average.

* An important factor to keep in mind is that the human has so evolved that he may have bad feelings and bad dreams about treating people contrary to feelings of compassion and animal-pity that have served the species so well. Some atheists may be so taken by these feelings as well as by the Golden Rule that it would be difficult for them, for example, to cheat certain people or even any person, finding rather more happiness in compassion than in any other desire for happiness, e.g., enriching themselves. Such atheists would make more dependable and trustworthy friends, if they can be identified and if these inclinations are enduring.

The fundamental imperative of a rational being who rejects respect for a moral law, e.g., a "Bundy atheist"*, is to go solely for one's greatest happiness (and not to qualify but rather only quantify**). Only on this supreme premise, i.e., as justified by our own pursuit of happiness, can the counsels of prudence make sense. This is of critical important for straight-thinking atheists and something that most atheists, I think, never fully comprehend.***

* See General Summary below.

** It is baseless to judge that enjoying a play or an intelligent conversation is somehow of "higher" value than getting drunk or raping someone. What counts in every case is how much amusement is expected from any given activity and for how long. Thinking of "higher" and "lower" values constitutes a confusion of mind which is typical of theists. This is like saying that murder is worse than passing in a no-passing lane. It is "worse" solely in the sense that the penalty (unhappiness) is greater for apprehended violators, but not that there is any qualitative or objective difference.

*** This is probably due to so many atheists being raised in a theist culture with a common acceptance of traditional or Kant's thinking regarding the moral law as depicted in our introduction.

In summary of this section we can conclude that an excellent counsel of prudence is Uhl's Golden Rule of Enlightened Selfishness. According to this thinking we are better off, i.e., happier on average, by complying with this law and thus obeying the criminal and civil laws as well as treating other people with respect and concern.

Right and Wrong versus Smart and Dumb.

It is generally agreed by all people that actions conforming to the Golden Rule (including here conformity also with criminal and traffic laws) are to be called "right" while those in violation of that rule are to be denominated "wrong".* I want to introduce two other terms which are critical for keeping our thinking straight as atheists with regard to this Golden Rule, namely "smart and dumb". It is smart to go after my happiness and dumb not to do so (and Uhl justifies his Golden Rule of Enlightened Selfishness by essentially contending that compliance is, generally speaking, the smart thing to do). And so the reason I conform to the Golden Rule (according to Uhl) is not because it is right (for that is a mere tautology**) but rather because on average it is smart, i.e., leads to a greater happiness for myself. It just so happens that it is usually smart to do the "right thing", i.e., conform to the Golden Rule.

* Since we are including the criminal and traffic laws in Uhl's Golden Rule, we can also speak of wrong as referring to the reductions in personal happiness which belong to violations of the rule (due to feelings) and which then also encompasses legal punishments.

** As just indicated "right" = "conformity with Golden Rule", much as 2+2=4, i.e., they are essentially synonyms.

Now if the reason we do the right thing, i.e., conform to the Golden Rule, is because it is the smart thing to do, i.e., if it leads to greater personal happiness, then obviously when the smart thing to do is the "wrong" thing, i.e., violates the Golden Rule, we are first smart and then everything else, and so we do the "wrong" thing. I just want all of us to keep in mind that the terms right and wrong have no objective meaning morally, but are simply a commonly held definition concerning actions with respect to the Golden Rule.*

* We are now also in a better position to grasp the Counsels of Prudence (above) with respect to dealings with other atheists. Rationally we have to assume that they would cheat us if they could do so safely and profitably and without bad feelings or bad dreams. It would all depend on the particular atheist's assessment of smart and dumb, and whether he finds it smart to cheat, i.e., whether he judges cheating to be profitable and safe, i.e., whether or not greater personal happiness is expected by cheating. Unlike the silly theists who consider such cheating to be wrong without qualification, the atheist has only to deal with estimation of what is smart and dumb with respect to pleasure and pain.

In summary of this section we can observe that objectively speaking there is no more meaning to right and wrong than there is to right and left.* In both cases the expressions are totally subjective. The only thing that counts is smart and dumb. On average the Golden Rule is a smart rule, but not always. Sometimes it is dumb. The only thing that we would logically and rationally want to do always is what is smart, i.e., what leads to personal happiness.

* As my left can be your right on occasion (when facing each other), even so my smart can be your dumb.

General Summary.

No one, I think, has better presented the "heart and soul" of the logical, rational and consistent atheist than the famous young Ted Bundy when speaking to an interviewer. Reflect on his thoughts below carefully for they are well considered and well articulated.

"Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself–what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself–that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring–the strength of character–to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me–after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited {self*}."** *** ****

* This word, "self", was not included in the source available to me and I have extrapolated.

** Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 3rd edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 1999), 31-32. Web source

*** It is noteworthy that Bundy better exemplifies the ideal of the rational and logical atheist than does the famous Smerdyakov for whom everything is lawful since there is no God. Dostoyevsky's Smerdyakov sought to rationalize murdering his father and putting the blame on his brother Dimitri by noting that the father was wasting the fortune that belonged rightfully (morally?) to the kids, and that Dimitri was just as bad and would also waste his share of the inheritance. Bundy was superior in his conception because he disregarded all such "moral rationalizing" entirely.

**** The rational question concerning the atheist is why would anyone suffer the least pain or inconvenience in order to comply with a moral law when the recipient of the good act has no more value or even reality than a mouse or a roach or a mailbox? Without a soul and God, the human is on the same value level as an insect, i.e., upon death there is absolutely nothing remaining but a decaying carcass. Only an insane person would be willing to give up personal happiness in order to be good to such a nothing as that. This thinking is clear to the theist and atheist alike. As a consequence it may prove prudent to the atheist to keep his atheism hidden, and instead play the part of a theist. [This is touched on again in item 6 in the section immediately following.]

Advice for Young Atheists.

Now based upon what we have considered above, here are some examples of the counsels of rational thinking. Again the premise is self-evident: in pursuit of your own personal happiness you will do well to heed this advice. Be bold enough to think things through on your own.

1. Carefully think before you act. Know what you are after and consider all factors and act efficiently and effectively.

2. Generally speaking, while you are young and strong, you will be smarter to prepare for the possibility of weakness in your old age. In other words, look ahead and prepare for what is likely coming.

3. Be cautious in all endeavors in pursuit of your happiness and get informed of the likely consequences in great detail (similar to No. 1). If you want to kill someone, as an extreme example, be super aware that it is very difficult to do this safely. Consider the famous case of Leopold and Loeb. And so make sure that the expected reward is worth the risk in any undertaking, and remember also that such things as murder, even if you escape detection, may result in bad dreams and feelings. The same caution holds for lying, although lying can often be very judicious in promoting your own happiness while not diminishing that of those you care about. Just be careful in formulating your lies that you don't trip yourself up.

4. Generally speaking you will be better off complying with the Golden Rule and being concerned about others and about obeying the laws of your society. But don't be taken in by theist prattle that this rule is somehow "holy" and must always be complied with. It works on average, but only on average. Don't confuse right and wrong with smart and dumb--they are different and it is the latter two alone that count.

5. It is natural to expect that an intelligent and cognizant atheist (including you and me, of course!) will be dishonest if a safe and profitable opportunity arises, and this by virtue of his own conception and estimation of personal happiness as a logical and rational atheist (see Kant's example of the cheat). Accordingly be very careful in dealing with him. This is especially true if the dealings are open to a possibility of him cheating you. Remember (per 4 above) that you would cheat him if that were safe and possible (and not disconcerting to you), and so you should expect the same from him.*

* There is actually a spectrum of atheists with respect to morality, and the extremes might be denominated as the "bold" and the "timid". Bundy is a vivid example of the bold atheist, i.e., he knows that the moral law is totally without objective meaning, and simply disregards it as a factor of his conduct, for his hardness is not mitigated by much feelings for others. But the timid (or morally inclinded) atheist, such as Stephen Uhl, although he also knows that the moral law is without objective meaning, will still strive to honor it and will sacrifice some degree of his personal happiness in order to comply with it. He does this in anticipation of having a happier life than otherwise, and is probably based on his personal feelings about others.** If you can be sure you are dealing with a softer atheist you might find him quite trustworthy.*** ****

** Spinoza was also a timid atheist according to Kant (although Kant did not use this terminology). See how Kant might have dealt with the morally inclined atheist, i.e., an atheist who professes meaning and respect for the moral law, and with Spinoza specifically in mind.

*** Since strictly speaking atheism is problematic (for it is no more possible to prove that God and a future life do not exist than it is to show their actuality), and so since agnosticism is all that is left with respect to actual knowledge, and since there is then always the possibility of God and a future life and such then where the moral law might be meaningful after all, a young atheist might want to consider a Pascal sort of wager and decide to live a moral life, eschewing even safe and profitable cheating in secret, just in case the theist is right after all. Such an atheist might be simply called timid or cautious. Perhaps this was the case with Spinoza!? This individual must decide for him or herself.

**** There is also the Buddhist atheist who is no more concerned with moral conduct than is the bold atheist, but who is trustworthy for the simple reason that he wants nothing more than to end all his desire for anything whatsoever. Such an atheist would be a timid atheist.

6. On average a Christian theist is more likely to be trustworthy than an atheist, for the Christian has a reason to want to comply with the Golden Rule even in secret, i.e., he has an "objective" conscience (as a result of his moral law and his God) and unlike the atheist he does not give up happiness for the sake of the moral.* ** Since then on average the Christian is more trustworthy than the atheist, an atheist might decide to publicly play the part of a theist (as a camouflage) and even become active in some church in order to better convey the impression of honesty which then, like Smerdyakov, he can use to his advantage if a promising opportunity arises.

* When the atheist gives up happiness for the sake of the moral act (as the timid atheist would do), he gives up that happiness forever; while the theist in the same situation considers himself as merely delaying his happiness, and not losing it (and this by virtue of the Highest Good, which encompasses personal immortality and an omnipotent and moral Judge).

** There are some theists who are no more to be trusted than atheists. For example the "eternal security" (or "once saved, always saved") Christian is certain that he will end up in a happy heaven no matter how evil he may become after his conversion. Such a Christian may find it advantageous to cheat someone with the loss of only a degree of happiness, but not loss of ultimate happiness itself. Consider this assertion concerning an alleged murderer,“. . . He claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but does not follow the Bible in his actions,” Ms. Micheau said in the court document. “He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases. . . .” See full article.

7. If an atheist overreaches or acts recklessly and is facing terrifying unhappiness as some sort of legal punishment, he should remember that in the end we are all dead and have gone out of existence, and he can always choose a painless suicide as the way to end all his problems and his unhappiness. So as an extreme example, an atheist might choose the daring road of Dahmer or Bundy toward unbridled delights and get caught and face severe punishment. If so, he can always "jump ship" to escape that punishment. And as he ages and draws nearer to the end of his expected life, he might reasonable think about being more daring in what he is willing to do for his remaining happiness, for he will have less expected happiness to give up in case he is apprehended and punished.

8. Do not be cowed by the so-called moral judgments of the theists (and some "timid atheists"), e.g., when they say that Hitler and Dahmer and Bundy were morally wrong in what they did. The most that I as an atheist might say against them is that personally I would not enjoy killing babies or consuming human flesh any more than I would enjoy coffee spiced with gasoline or eating my own hand roasted medium well. It would be very distasteful for me. Thus in both cases (killing a baby or raping and cannibalizing people) I would adhere to Uhl's take on the Golden Rule, knowing that on average I will be happier than otherwise. But to each his own, for I grant that

Some like it hot; some like it cold;
some like it in the pot nine days old.*

* Paraphrasing an old nursery rhyme.

Can anyone ever describe the atheist meaning of life better than Shakespeare in these verses?

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.*
[The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158]

* Incidentally the sentiments expressed here reflect very much the violent video games and movies that are so popular today, and where a person is considered to be no more than a graphic or hologram and without any enduring reality at all. By considering people in this way it is much easier to ignore one's animal pity regarding them and focusing more directly on one's own personal happiness and advantage, but always in a way that is cautious regarding the police.

And consider this statement on the meaning of life:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying . . . nothing.
[Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28]

Disclaimer: I do not espouse the attitude depicted in these lecture notes. Instead I am trying here to get into, and express, what I consider to be the natural thinking of a thoroughly logical and rational and consistent atheist. Since I believe that the moral law is objectively meaningfull, I perforce join Kant and believe in God.

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