Friendly Atheist has posted a challenge he received from a theist to account for moral equality without any reference to a deity – to explain it purely in scientific terms. ("Can We Have Government Without Faith?") This theist suggests that it cannot be done, which leaves the atheist with a problem. The atheist must either abandon the idea of moral quality, or allow that he holds onto a belief (a belief in the rightness of moral equality) in the absence of information – on faith alone.
Using that definition, it seems the belief in equal worth, equal treatment, and autonomy are more faith based than science. So given that we want these principles in government, is it not necessary to have faith inside government? For people reading this who identify themselves as atheist yet believe in these principles, how is that not faith?
I read the many attempts to answer this challenge with interest, and thought I would offer some comments on the issue.
It does not make any sense to try to account for something such as the moral principle of political equality unless we first know what it is. Try looking for an ukalarn some day, without first answering the question, “What is a ukalarn?”
So, what is this moral principle of political equality that we need to account for?
Equality as the Absence of Divine Right
It turns out that it is not anything at all. It is the absence of something. Specifically, it is the absence of a natural right to rule on the part of one group of people, and a natural duty to obey on the part of some other group.
We can see this clearly when we look at the context in which this moral principle was discovered. It was in the 1600s. For 1200 years Europe had been governed by the unquestioned principle of the divine right of kings. Everybody believed that God picked the rulers for a country by manipulating political events in a way that put His chosen leader on the throne. At least, every leader in Europe had a vested interest in making the people think that they ruled in God’s name.
As God’s chosen leader, every king or emperor had a right to rule, and every subject in his kingdom (and it was almost always a ‘his’ – God seemed to have an aversion to selecting female leaders and putting them on the throne, though He did make an occasional exception) had a duty to obey.
I want to point out that this arrangement of God-given rulers and subjects used to be one of those moral absolutes that religious people like to talk about as proof that there is a God. Certainly, there can be no such thing as a divine right of Kings without something divine to give that right. To question the existence of God is to question the King’s divine right to rule. That was a threat to both church and state, so it was an idea that both had a particularly strong interest in suppressing.
Anyway, in the 1600s, people started to get the idea that they could look at nature, make observations, apply reason to those observations, come up with ‘laws’, and use those ‘laws’ to try to predict and explain what goes on around them. They kept those ‘laws’ that made the best predictions, and threw away those ‘laws’ that could be falsified. They started talking about such things as proof and reason – ideas that came about when they discovered the writings of some ancient pagan named Aristotle.
These methods, applied to physical observations, were yielding truly stupendous results. Galileo and the astronomers were showing that the Earth was not at the center of the solar system. Newton was revealing his laws of planetary motion. Electricity, weather, magnetism, light, were all being put under a microscope – which, by the way, was one of the new inventions of the age.
Some people got the bright idea of doing the same thing to morality. They said, “Let us look at man in a state of nature – without governments or social structure of any kind. What type of society would it make sense for them to adopt?”
Thomas Hobbes argued that life in a state of nature would be perpetual war of all against all where individuals could anticipate an existence that was nasty, brutish, cruel, and short. Rational people would give their authority to a dictator – a leviathan – with asolute power to crush anybody who opposed him. The monarch’s interest in preserving his power would motivate him to prevent conflict among his subjects.
However, John Locke had a different idea. Locke noted that, in a state of nature, we could find no natural right to rule or duty to obey. This ‘moral absolute’ of the divine right of kings that Church and State had been pushing for 1200 years under Christianity, and perpetually before that, turned out to be absolutely wrong.
Of course, neither Church nor State liked the idea that there was no divine right to rule and divine duty to obey. So, ultimately, dethroning the idea that such divine right existed ultimately required a revolution – in England, in America, and elsewhere. This rebellion was a rebellion against a “moral absolute” that God picked our monarchs who ruled in His name.
For purposes of this posting what is important here is the observation that the concept of political equality was the concept that there was no divine right to rule and no divine rule to obey. These are claims that any atheist would have no trouble accepting. It certainly makes no sense to argue, “There is no divine right to rule and no divine duty to obey; therefore, God exists.”
Theists Restore Divine Right
It is worth noting that, with the controversial Presidential election of 2000, how many theists were eager to restore the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Some (including Bush himself) asserted that God selected Bush to be President and, to accomplish this end, interfered in the election to prevent Al Gore from winning the election. The implication we were invited to take from this is that, since God picked Bush to be President of the United States, anybody who opposed Bush or his policies opposed God.
The religious right proved to be all too willing to set the clock back 500 years, back to the philosophy that denied political equality and asserted the medieval idea of the divine rights of rulers and divine duties of subjects.
Which Religious Morals are Absolute?
It is also strange, at best, to argue that religion gives us moral absolutes when religious people change their minds so much over time. First there was the divine right of kings, then there was democracy, then the divine right of kings again. First there was slavery, then slavery became a bad thing. First it was wrong to charge interest when lending money to fellow citizens, then charging interest became the foundation of a free-market economy. It makes one pause to ask, “If religion brings us moral absolutes, what are they?”
Note that “thou shalt not murder”, “thou shalt not steel”, and “honor thy mother and thy father,” are not moral absolutes because they are utterly question-begging. Murder, for example, is wrongful killing, so the claim ‘thou shalt not murder’ really says that it is wrong to engage in wrongful killing. The same can be said about the wrong of stealing, since stealing is the wrongful taking the property of another. If there are, indeed, moral absolutes that come from God, then why is it that the religious community has changed and return to an era where God picked our leaders, and disobeying the leader was the same as disobeying God.
Theists certainly do not preach the value of political equality when it comes between humans and God. Let us assume that some interstellar race were to come upon our little planet. Let us assume that they are vastly more intelligent than we are, and significantly more powerful. This combination of intelligence and power still would not give them a right to rule. It does not give us a duty to obey. We are still, by right, political equals, since neither has an intrinsic right to rule the other.
God’s Right to Rule
The same principle applies to God, as it turns out. Let us assume that there was a God, and that this creature created us and populated the planet with us. We may be grateful to such a being and buy him a present on his birthday. However, even this generosity does not give God a right to rule, nor does it give us a duty to obey. If somebody were to save my life, I would be grateful, but I would have no obligation to become his slave and obey his every wish, putting his will above mine in all things. I have a right of refusal.
Denying this is to deny the principle of political equality, while at the same time telling us that a right to political equality is a moral absolute.
Atheism simply has no problem with the concept of political equality. On the other hand, atheists would have a great deal of difficulty denying the principle of political equality. The atheist would somehow have to come up with a theory to explain where a natural right to rule and a natural duty to obey comes from. A theist will find it easy to deny political equality – and did so for thousands of years. The theist says that the right to rule and the duty to obey comes from God. The atheist does not have that option. So, many atheists find that they are stuck. They have no choice but to assert political equality. There is no evidence that something exists that would break this tie.