This gem popped up in my Facebook feed today. Like many internet memes, I have no idea of its origins but I hope it’s not indicative of what people really think about atheists (i.e.: atheist = sociopath).
But just in case, I thought I’d go through this meme’s assertions sentence by sentence. Instead of pointing out the questionable ethics in the bible (books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus) I thought it would be more useful to refute the meme using science.
First of all let’s clear up what the word, atheist actually means. Atheist comes from the Greek: ἄθεος – no god or without god. We know it means this because it negates the word, θεος which means god. The negation is in the α known as the alpha privative which is the Ancient Greek (and probably modern Greek) way to negate a word (like the “un” or “non” of English).
Now let’s look at the assertions one my one.
Believing that if you can get away with it, it must be ok. Well, all humans have a little bit of the cheater in them and a profound mastery of self deception as Dan Ariely, the behaviour economist who wrote The Honest Truth About Dishonesty points out:
We persist in deceiving ourselves in part to maintain a positive self-image. We gloss over our failures, highlight our successes (even when they’re not entirely out own), and love to blame other people and outside circumstances when our failures are undeniable (Ariely, 240)
Ariely’s book leads us through several experiments that show how people cheat on little things when they think they can get away with it and how they justify their cheating to avoid the pangs of guilt that emerge from seeing themselves as bad people. Although Ariely’s book was about dishonesty, he reminds us that:
…human beings are, by and large, more moral than standard economic theory predicts. In fact, seem from a purely rational (SMORC) perspective, we humans don’t cheat nearly enough. Consider how many times in the last few days you’ve had the opportunity to cheat without getting caught. Perhaps a colleague left her purse on her desk while she was away for a long meeting. Maybe a stranger in a coffee shop asked you to watch her laptop while she went to the restroom. Maybe a grocery clerk missed an item in your cart or you passed an unlocked bicycle on an empty street. In any of those situations, the SMORC thing to do would be to take the money, laptop, or bike or not mention the missed item. Yet we pass up the vast majority of these opportunities every day without thinking that we should take them. This means that we’re off to a good start in our effort to improve our moral fibre. (Ariely, 357)
He goes on to explain that the aggressive cheaters in his experiments were few and far between and the reason we deceive ourselves into thinking it is okay to cheat a little is because we know, innately that it is wrong. Even our fellow primates have an innate sense of justice, as demonstrated in this video where a Capuchin monkey gets noticeably upset when he is given a lesser reward for the same work as a monkey next to him.
So, this sentence about “believing we can get away with it” – that technically applies to everyone, not just atheists and only accounts for the small stuff. Which brings me to the next assertion: That includes rape, robbery, murder, torture, pedophilia, tax evasion, racketeering, theft, arson, embezzlement, drug distribution, kidnapping, lying, cheating, etc.
It looks like now we’ve crossed over into the big stuff. I’ve already mentioned how we seem to have an innate sense of justice and feel pangs of guilt when we do bad things (as long as we aren’t sociopaths) so it would follow that we just wouldn’t be typically engaging in these sociopathic activities and Ariely points out that this big stuff is much more rare than the small stuff. So, is this because of a fear of godly retribution? Of course not. We have mirror neurons which allow us to understand what another being is experiencing and which may be linked to empathy, making it painful to hurt another being:
Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal, Jean Decety, and Vittorio Gallese and Christian Keysers have independently argued that the mirror neuron system is involved in empathy. A large number of experiments using fMRI, electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) have shown that certain brain regions (in particular the anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and inferior frontal cortex) are active when people experience an emotion (disgust, happiness, pain, etc.) and when they see another person experiencing an emotion. (Wikipedia)
From an evolutionary perspective, empathy and cooperation probably benefited our selfish genes, and these traits were passed down. The origins of this behaviour is not godly, it is evolutionary and it can be explained using game theory. Matt Ridley, the zoologist and author of The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation uses the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a starting point to spring off to a description of how a tournament of various game types (Tit-for-tat which starts off co-operating but punishes defectors immediately, always cooperate, which never punished defectors, Generous which, as a variant of Tit-for-tat, randomly forgave transgressions) found a strategy that worked best in the real world. It seems that in the long run, a game called Pavlov turned out to be the most stable model. The principle is that you don’t mend your behaviour unless it is broken:
Pavlov is nice, like Tit-for-tat, in that it establishes cooperation, reciprocating in that it tends to repay its partners in kind, and forgiving like Generous, in that it punishes mistakes but then returns to cooperating. Yet it has a vindictive streak that enables it to exploit naive cooperatiors like “Always cooperate”. If it comes up against a sucker, it keeps on defecting. Thus it creates a so operative world, but does not allow that world to decay into too-trusting Utopia where free-riders can flourish. (Ridley, 78)
So, the origins of our cooperative (to a point) vs. sociopathic behaviour make sense in the context of game theory and it explains why we tend to want to cooperate to a point with each other and build societies where we don’t just kill one another off and take each other’s property. This (along with Ariely’s remarks) makes the last sentence of our meme completely illogical: since there is no ultimate moral authority that will make you account for your misdeeds, then their (sic) truly is no justice. It is notable that the only people that seem to require moral authority are sociopaths. I recently read a book called: Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight written by a Sociopath under a pseudonym. She is a Mormon and she says that the Mormon Church provides her boundaries for her behaviour (Thomas, 125). You see, human beings, without brain damage or sociopathy do not need a set of “moral” rules to know that something is wrong – that’s what our brains (mirror neurons) and genetics (selfish genes that know how to reproduce through long term cooperation) do for us.
So atheists aren’t evil. They’re people with all the biological influences and genetic make up of other human beings. Some of us may be sociopaths but being an atheist doesn’t automatically make you one.
Ariely, Dan. The (honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012.
Ridely, Matt. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Thomas, M.E. Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. New York: Random House, Inc, 2013.
“Mirror Neuron.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron>.