This article is part of an ongoing Blaze series called, “Ask an Atheist.” Millionaire secular activist Todd Stiefel answers readers’ most pressing questions about faith and non-belief. Part One of the series can be read here, Part Two is here and Part Three can be found here. The fourth portion, which focuses upon some of the more philosophical issues associated with atheism is below:
Over the past few months, atheist millionaire Todd Stiefel has answered numerous questions from Blaze readers. First, he addressed some curiosities about his personal faith journey and atheism on the whole. Then, he dove into the Ten Commandments and the Bible, highlighting the issues he sees with Christian doctrine. And in the third installment, he spoke about the character of Jesus Christ, among other sentiments.
In this fourth set of questions, the interview series comes full circle, with Stiefel tackling some of the more philosophical questions about atheism and non-belief. The first inquiry in this latest set is, “Who are you and what were you made for?” The general nature of the question is fascinating, as is Stiefel’s short, yet pointed response.
“I am different things to different people,” he says. “I am a husband, father, brother, son, friend and teammate. I was not made for any special purpose (unless my parents wanted a tax deduction).”
Since atheists don’t believe in a higher power, the notion that someone would be created with a “purpose” isn’t something that generally resonates. This is likely why Stiefel added, “I give my life its own purpose,” as non-believers are truly the only beings in charge of their destiny since the Almighty isn’t a factor on their radar.
This, of course, is generally where theists counter that atheists, being in charge of their own actions, lack a moral framework through which to act. The general argument is that, without a God, relativism takes hold (i.e. an “anything goes” mentality).
“In a world with no supreme governing body, is not every moral principle and truth just relative?,” asked another reader. Stiefel responded, in detail:
My opinion is that some moral principles are absolute and some are relative. Committing genocide against random groups of people is always and absolutely wrong. On the other hand, hurting another person is usually wrong, but it depends on the circumstances, such as if it is done in self-defense.
One thing that concerns me is the dangers of taking morality from a supreme governing body. If Jehovah/Yahweh/God is the decider of perfect absolute morality, how can we know what that code is? We do not have his words directly, we only have what imperfect people say his words were. To me, having a religiously-based absolute moral code requires suspending the use of our own minds. It requires making the ethics of others our own morality without question. It makes us the servants of people like televangelists who claim to speak to or for a god.
Taking the Bible or Qur’an as absolute moral truth locks our values in ancient times and prevents us from learning from the mistakes of history. I am much more comfortable with the type of modern Christianity that does not take the Bible literally and attempts to put love first.
And it is this love and compassion that Stiefel claims he embraces in his own life. These qualities, he says, can exist within an individual regardless of one’s belief — or lack thereof — in a higher power. While he rejects holding holy books up for moral truth (considering his views on the Bible, this isn’t surprising), he does believe in a universal goodness, it seems, that can be present in any and all human beings.
One of the other questions he received from a Blaze reader was, “How do you feel that being an atheist affects your ability to have empathy for others?” Stiefel claims that he now has more empathy than he did when he was religious. This is an intriguing revelation — one that he attempts to explain by giving an example about his views on the poor and homeless:
When I was a Christian, I believed the poor, war-torn, sick and starving at least had the hope of heaven. Now, I realize those that suffer will not get a chance for bliss in an afterlife. They get one shot, just like I do. Believing in an afterlife made me feel less upset about their situation, and believing we have one life to live makes me feel more upset about their situation. This in turn makes me feel more compassion for them. I feel a much stronger urge to help them now that I see their situation as more dire than I saw it when I believed in heaven.
This is a fascinating answer and one that evangelicals, in particular, would meet with some criticism. Those who believe in heaven and in Jesus Christ would argue that they are motivated by compassion to act like Christianity’s central figure and to bring salvation to everyone, including those in need. And considering the heavy-duty charity work conducted by churches, there are arguments to make against this sentiment.
But, Stiefel isn’t necessarily making sweeping generalizations here. He’s merely sharing his own experience. He continues, remaining relatively fair-minded regarding overarching themes and generalizations:
Interestingly, a recent study suggested that atheists and agnostics may be more compassionate than religious people. I want to see more independent studies before I will believe that is true. What I would really love to see is data on charitable giving by atheists/agnostics compared to religious people after eliminating donations to groups that mostly provide services to ourselves or to promoting our own viewpoints. For me, that would mean not counting gifts to groups like Secular Coalition for America, American Humanist Association, and my local community, the Triangle Freethought Society. For the religious, donations would not count to their church or any charity that evangelizes. Now, that would be interesting information.
On the topic of charity, Stiefel was asked whether he would consider donating to relief projects that were founded or run by Christian missionaries (Stiefel has given millions to secular groups). He was, once again, pointed and honest in his response:
I would not donate to Christian missionaries, but have donated to relief projects run by Christians. The difference is in the word “missionary.” I have no interest in donating to efforts that result in religious proselytizing. I would rather my donations go through organizations that do not promote supernatural beliefs as part of their charity work. I do donate to Foundation Beyond Belief, and they give grants to many religious organizations, including Christian, that do relief work without evangelism.
Stiefel’s beliefs on the matter are clear. So long as the group isn’t evangelizing, he may considering giving monies.
The Blaze continues to invite you to post questions in the comments section, below. Are there any curiosities you have that weren’t answered in the first four parts of the series? If so, post them and we will include them in the fifth and final interview segment.