Yesterday’s blog entry suggested to me that I should make explicit one of the motivations behind this blog – suggesting better answers to theist moral claims.
For quite some time, in my living memory, the standard response to religious ethics has been something like, "You are mistaken to say that moral values are absolute. Moral values are subjective, meaning that no moral system is actually better than any other. It is all just a matter of opinion.”
Against this, the theist had a whole battery of responses.
One was to assert the absurdity of such a view – holding that the slavery and the holocaust was not really ‘wrong.’
A second set of responses (springing from the first) is that atheists are dangerous because they cannot actually counter those who might seek to restore slavery or impose the holocaust and have nothing to prevent them from imposing a ‘final solution’ on Christians and other theists.
And a third set of responses says that, ‘If morality is merely a matter of opinion, then in my opinion homosexuals should be killed, abortion should be outlawed, God belongs in the public square, and atheists should sit down and shut up.”
In addition, when they hear atheists describe theism as irrational and dangerous, they need to look no further than common moral subjectivism to identify a belief that is also irrational and dangerous.
Atheists respond by saying, “You either refuse to understand, or you are intentionally misrepresenting, the subtleties of common moral subjectivism.”
The theist echoes this by saying, “You refuse to understand, or you are intentionally misrepresenting, the subtleties of theism.”
On the issue of common moral subjectivism, I hold that the theists were correct. The view is irrational and dangerous, and the logical contortions that its defenders have gone through to defend it are not unlike those that theists use to defend religion.
This observation is one of the reasons why I have argued in the past that atheists are advised not to get too heavy with the condemnation for theist irrationality. Anybody can fall into a system where they have blinded themselves to its problems – it does not happen only to those who believe in God.
For those common moral subjectivists who may find this view unconvincing, I offer that, from your perspective, desire utilitarianism would count as a system that people can fall into and not see its problems that does not involve belief in God. Either way, one of my premises against condemnation of irrationality – it happens to everybody – is supported.
However, back on the desire utilitarian perspective, the problem with many theistic moral claims is not that they falsely claim that their morality is better than others. It is the fact that their morality is worse than others. The religious foundation for their morality is a set of primitive assumptions from ancient tribes whose grasp of morality was no better than their grasp of physics and medicine. Forcing a modern society to live according to this ancient morality is as much of a mistake as forcing it to adopt Hippocrates as providing the one true, accurate, and unchanging set of rules to govern all medical practice from 2,000 years ago to eternity.
Of course, this raises the question, “How can you say that a moral system is actually, objectively, worse than other systems and in error? All you are doing is applying your own standards to theirs and finding theirs to come up short.”
The claim is that I have some reason to consider all moral views equally. Yet, I note that the same people who conclude that homosexuality must be eliminated and that early-term abortions are evil are (to a large degree) people who also believe that the earth is only 10,000 years old and that humans emerged fully formed from a stack of dirt without 3+ billion years of development, trial, and error. Furthermore, they use the same story to get to both sets of conclusions. Why, please tell, must I take either set of conclusion seriously?
Some of the motivation behind this blog and my other writing is to explain to those who criticize theistic ethics that it is quite permissible and accurate to say to them, “You are wrong.” When they say that banning homosexual marriage is permissible, it is fair and accurate to say, “No, it is not. You are wrong, and your religion, in this case, is causing you treat other people unjustly.” The same is true of prohibitions on early-term abortion, euthanasia, cloning, stem-cell research, government-sponsored religion, religiously motivated pseudo science, “under God” in the Pledge, “In God We Trust” as the national motto, and prayer in schools.
The people pursuing these policies are not pursuing, “Just another set of moral beliefs that are just as valid as any other.” What they are pursuing is something that harms the legitimate interests of real people, is unjust, and immoral.
When they claim that their agenda seeks to promote ‘morality,’ the correct response is not to say that, “It is wrong to legislate morality.” The correct response is to say, “No, you are not promoting morality. You are promoting immorality and injustice, and doing so in the name of God. If there is a God, and this God loves justice, then this God knows that your actions do not qualify.”
If I should be asked to justify such an assertion – well, that is what this blog is about as well.
(And now, I can say, “If you want to know how I justify my moral claims, you can read my book.”)
I simply would like to see more atheists capable of looking theists in the eye when they make some of their moral claims and say, “No, your religion is not leading you to morality. It is leading you to immorality – no less so than the Islamic Jihadists and slave owners, the inquisitors, and the crusaders of the past. You’re getting your morality from a bunch of primitive and substantially ignorant tribesmen who were as poor at getting the moral facts right and they were at getting the science facts right.
"When you use their primitive and uneducated ideas as your morality, you are doing nothing but carrying their injustice, their prejudice, and their moral error into the 21st century – and harming innocent people in the process. Quit patting yourself on the back and claiming to be of great virtue because, in fact, insofar as you pursue these policies, you are not an agent of that which is right and good. You are an agent of injustice – whether you admit it or not.