Sunday, February 03, 2008

Only Atheists Can Be Moral?

Here’s a headline that attracted my attention.

Only Atheists can Act Morally

I disagree, of course.

The reason given for saying that only atheists can be moral is:

In most, If not all religions, There is a reward/punishment system at it's very core. Religion comes along, lays down some rules and convinces you that should you break any of these rules you will be subject to torturous punishment, pain and suffering for eternity. For eternity!

In light of that, How can any action performed by a religious person be considered moral? How can it even be a result of free will? If you are told to do something and threatened with eternal suffering should you not comply or promised a reward should you abide how can your action be considered good?

First (and this is admittedly pedantic) actions are right or wrong, people are good or evil. This is true in the same way that propositions are true or false, while arguments are valid or invalid. A more precise use of terms is helpful. Like I said, nothing really depends on this. It is just how I learned to write in studying moral philosophy, and what follows will make more sense if people are aware of these conventions.

Second, a right act is an act that a person with good desires would perform. A right act is not necessarily done from good desires. I borrow $15 from you and promise to pay you back on Monday. Monday comes, and I owe you $15. I do not owe you $15 paid from a particular motive. I simply owe you $15.

Or, assume that you are serving as a witness in a trial, and you are asked a question. Your motivation for telling the truth does not matter. You may tell the truth because you hate the defendant. You may tell the truth because you stand to gain a lot of money. The lawyers will certainly bring up these facts (as a way of determining if you have an incentive to lie), but they do not affect the fact that telling the truth is the right action. You still have an obligation to tell the truth, even if your motives are bad.

So, even if a person does the right act in order to avoid punishment or to obtain a reward, he is still performing the right action. It is not the case that only atheists can perform right actions. It is not the case that an act performed for the sake of obtaining a reward or avoiding punishment cannot be a right action.

So, what about the question that only an atheist can be a good person? A person is a person with good desires. A theist, apparently, only acts on a desire to obtain a reward or to avoid punishment in the afterlife.

This is almost certainly false. To begin with, if we talk about evolved desires, the theist’s (evolved) desire to care for their offspring (for example) is just as real as an atheist’s evolved desire to care for his offspring. No amount of religion changes the fact that theists are evolved creatures with the full range of evolved desires.

I have denied that evolved desires have anything to do with morality. Morality has to do only with learned desires. However, these learned desires involve, in part, strengthening or weakening those evolved desires. Evolution may have given us a sense of altruism. However, it has also given us the ability to strengthen or weaken that sense of altruism through social forces. Do we use those social forces to strengthen altruism, or to weaken it? These are the questions for morality to answer.

The relevant point here is that theists have these desires as well, and the capacity to have these desires strengthened or weakened, and ‘reasons for action’ for strengthening or weakening these desires. Not believing in evolution does not change the fact that one evolved any more than not believing in gravity changes one's weight.

People often do not know why they do things. One of my favorite examples has to do with riding a bike. Many bike riders cannot accurately describe how they keep themselves balanced on a bike. They claim to do this by shifting their weight, but the truth of the matter is that they keep their balance by turning the front wheel and using their momentum to carry their center of balance back and forth across the line from the front tire to the back tire.

We have been practicing morality for a long time - since before religion came into existence. Even animals, I argue, are capable of using social forces (praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. It does not take a lot of intelligence (certainly not as much as inventing the concept of ‘god’) to reward pleasing behavior and condemn displeasing behavior in others. Intelligence still has a role to play in morality - it allows us to create a better morality in the same way it allows us to create better tools generally. Great intelligence is simply not necessary.,/p>

Morality came before religion. Religion did not invent morality. Religion hijacked a moral system that was already in existence.

And what type of situation do these people count as a ‘reward’ in heaven? One of the most common aspects that I hear about is a reunion with family members and other loved ones – for those loved ones to come to heaven with them. What this means is that, yes, these people seek a reward in heaven. However, the reward they hope for is the perpetual safety and happiness of their loved ones in heaven with them.

In fact, this is precisely why many of these people hate atheism so much. Given their religious beliefs, atheists are a threat to the possibility that their children will live in perpetual safety and happiness in heaven. Instead, they will live in perpetual torment. This would not be an easy situation for any loving parent to accept. Is it the case that a parent is a ‘bad person’ because they seek a ‘reward’ of their children joining them in heaven as opposed to the ‘punishment’ of knowing that their child will endure perpetual torture?

Having said this, it is correct to say that that religion provides many religious people with a significant moral handicap. To imagine the handicap that a religious moralist is under, imagine the handicap that a physician would be under if he decided that all medical truths were written in the works of Hippocrates and that anything that deviates from his teachings is false? He would not be a very good physician.

For the same reasons, a moralist who works under the false assumptions that a group of substantially ignorant tribesmen came up with perfect moral knowledge and that anything that deviates from their teaching is a mistake will be working under the same type of handicap.

Anybody who goes to the Bible for moral guidance is going to an extremely unreliable source.

There are some in the Christian tradition who have found a way around this. They have gotten into the habit of rewriting (or reinterpreting) their religious texts, putting into them the most recent advances in secular morality. When secular philosophers discover a new moral truth (e.g., that slavery is wrong), these Christians write these new moral truths into their interpretation of scripture, interpreting scripture as a document that condemns slavery.

They do this, even when secular philosophers make moral mistakes. While Marx was an atheist and his views are often used to condemn all atheists, a great many priests and preachers embraced his philosophy - claiming that Marx described an economic system that Jesus would have embraced.

I challenge anybody to find where it says in scripture that abortion is immoral – that it is murder. People who make this claim are not getting this view from scripture. They are getting it from something else, from their culture, and reading this into scripture. They do this in the same way that they have read the abolition of slavery and democracy into scripture (when, for 1800 years, scripture stood for slavery and the divine right of kings).

Many Christians ignore the biblical prohibitions on the charging of interest and working on the Sabbath, but refuse to ignore the biblical prohibitions on homosexuality. This is not something they get out of the Bible. There is nothing in the Bible that says, ‘ignore this passage; give that one extra emphasis’. They get these prejudices from sources outside of scripture.

Let's go back to our doctor who thinks that all medical truth comes from Hippocrates. Imagine that this doctor keeps up on the most recent medical journals, accepts their findings, then 'interprets' the works of Hippocrates as containing those truths. To the degree that a physician does this, he is still practicing the best medicine available. He just has an odd way of relating to those medical facts.

The ‘moral handicap’ of religion only applies to those who refuse to engage in this practice, and who stick with an interpretation of scripture in the face of modern advances. A lot of religious people do think this way, and we are made worse off because of it. Yet, this fact falls far short of saying that only atheists can be good people.

An atheist can, in fact, be far worse a person than a theist. Because, while thinking that scripture is a good moral guide may be a mistake, it is not the only mistake that a person can make. Nor is it necessarily the worst.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
I think a more accurate statement is that only an atheist can act both morally and consistantly. Religious people have to choose one or the other.

Divided By Zer0 said...

Once again, well said :)

martino said...

Hi Alonzo another excellent post. Hope you have recovered from your flu.

I think DU is the best stab at solving the problem of morality I have seen but I have one objection remaining before I can really accept it. This is over the theory of obligation.

Having read your book you use the concept of "desire-independent reasons to act" to stand for things such as intrinsic prescriptivity etc. which we both agree do not exist. However there is another meaning of this and I will try and state this following John Searle, not that I fully agree with him on this either...and, of course, any errors are my fault.

Searle argues that there is a difference between ape and human mentality and that that humans can have a certain type of desire-independent reasons. Still he insists there are no reasons to act without desires. What he means is that certain reasons to act are triggered (I would say) by duties, commitments, promises (which are not stereotypical but unusual as the agent voluntarily and deliberately imposes the obligation on themselves) and these are all reasons to act that apes are incapable of. Unlike Searle I would say that we have the capacity to symbolize, abstract and operate over abstractions such as time so that we can have expectations - beliefs we hold to be true about the future and obligations - reasons to act in the future that are often independent of our agreement.

The key point is that when when these obligations are activated we may have no desire to carry them out - that is to make them "effective reasons" - indeed this is the stereotypical issue - to fulfill obligations when we don't want to. Indeed that is often the reason we make a promise, because otherwise we know we will not, or not want to, carry it out at that future time.

His solution to this, and I am agnostic on this and interested to hear yours, is that we have "recognitional rationality" such that when we recognise an obligation we recognise this as a reason to act and such a recognition already means that we do indeed have a reason to act, with the relevant related desire. These obligations are "external motivators" but of this and only this specific kind and only due to our non-ape capacity of "recognitional rationality". By recognition he means we do not need to deliberate on this, we do not decide that this is a reason to act, the recognition of the obligation alone is sufficient to have a reason to act (with the relevant desire).

It is then not a question of how strong this desire is, whether we do fulfill it or not and whether, as you say, we have a desire to encourage people to fulfill their obligations nor whether this is a social or moral obligation (which you have to date failed to differentiate and maybe you don't want to?) This all comes afterwards.

Now, as far as I understand we all reject deontic, consequentialist and contractarian solutions to the theory of obligation, still the core question is what is your theory of obligation, specifically of fulfilling obligations when we, in some sense, don't want to? Over to you :-)

Anonymous said...

Are these two claims contradictory?


"So, if a person does the right act in order to avoid punishment or to obtain an award, he is still performing the right action.

It is not the case that a right action can be performed for the sake of obtaining a reward or avoiding punishment."

martino said...

I think I am answering my own question here but still really want to see your stance on this. In particular your previous answer a few weeks ago was unsatisfactory.

Any to answer the basic question of "fulfilling obligations when one does not want to" your distinction between satisfaction and fulfillment comes into play. What one "wants" to do, is in some sense satisfying as well as fulfilling, where obligations are, in the stereotypical scenarios, just fulfilling and specifically not satisfying. Once you look at it this way, and realizes that one seeks to fulfill the more and stronger of ones desires, the question becomes how the weighting factor of satisfaction can be outweighed by other factors - including other desires such as the desire to fulfill obligations. The answer is social conditioning.

Still I think that obligations are a special type of desire/reason to act, are you happy with my extension of ape mentality via the human capacity to symbolize, abstract and operate over abstractions including time? And finally can you differentiate between social and moral obligations or not?

mashmouth said...

"Religion did not invent morality."
Exactly... the theist view is that morality comes out of the character of a personal Creator. Therefore, I do not accept your argument for animals having morality, as where would the concept of right and wrong come from in a creature with no self-awareness?
"Anybody who goes to the Bible for moral guidance is going to an extremely unreliable source." Wow. Then I guess the manuscripts used for Homers writings, among many other ancient texts, are absolutely unbelievable since we only have less then 10. 20,000+ manuscripts for the New Testament, and 99.9 percent agreement, with no doctrinal discrepancies. Yup, wholly unreliable.
"When secular philosophers discover a new moral truth (e.g., that slavery is wrong), these Christians write these new moral truths into their interpretation of scripture..." Well, if you actually knew the history, Christians (by fruit, not only nominal) are responsible for initiating abolition of slavery. (Wilberforce and Newton in England; Abe Lincoln, etc.) Atheists are indeed exceedingly more apt to murder and use millions for the good of a few (i.e. Communist China, Stalin, Lenin, etc).
Furthermore, the very fact that you are using "evil and good", "right and wrong" terminology is borrowing my, as a Christian Theist, names for concepts that atheists, if you are truly honest and consistent, could not even accept (as I stated earlier, morality comes from the very "nature" of Creator God). If atheism is true, and you are consistent with your logic, then randomness is responsible for all things (randomness within the laws that govern matter, energy) and there is no okay/not okay, there just "is". Hitler just did things. Consistent atheist positions hold to an existence that if I want that, natural selection allows me to take it unless you can stop me.
Sir, with all due respect, you are using a few too many "only"s, "always"s, "never"s and other over-generalizations that utterly undercut your arguments.
Good lUck,

Christian said...

"To imagine the handicap that a religious moralist is under, imagine the handicap that a physician would be under if he decided that all medical truths were written in the works of Hippocrates and that anything that deviates from his teachings is false? He would not be a very good physician." Excellent point, and excellent post. When it comes to comparing with medicine, I'd rather mention Hahnemann, the inventor of homeopathy.