Giles Frasier wrote an article in Ekklesia on Moral practice and non-belief. In it, Fraier says that atheists can be moral, but adds:
My worry about the way many atheists describe the process of moral decision-making is that it seems to boil down to a sense of moral instinct, informed by a few formulas of general benevolence: i.e. do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Often, there is much talk about being a “good person”.
He objects that:
This seems so naïve, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing, when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.
He compares this to Christian moral decision-making, which he describes as follows:
Christian moral decision-making begins with a strong sense that we often try to fool ourselves, and thus we need some external check. Going to church, regular prayer, reading from scripture, specific times to meet and challenge each other’s moral instincts: all these are forms of external practice which offer checks against the dominance of my own internal moral intuitions.
Except the Bible itself was written by people who were using the same moral system that Frasier complains about when talking about atheists. They did not get their morality from God. They got their morality by appealing to their own moral intuitions and desires – fully under the influence of their human capacity to deceive themselves into thinking they were doing the right thing, when they were simply doing what they wanted or what made them happy.
We can see evidence of the fact that the Bible was written by humans assigning their own beliefs and prejudices to God by the moral code that was written in the Bible. Naturally, church leaders would want everybody to owe them allegiance and to give allegiance to no other religion, so they began with, "Thou shalt have no other God before me." They approved of slavery, as long as they were not the ones being enslaved, so they approved a Bible that allowed the enslavement of people from other countries, but not the enslavement of their own people.
They naturally thought that rape was not a problem since nothing in the Bible explicitly condemns rape as a crime. In fact, the punishment handed out for rape in the Bible was that the rapist had to marry the victim. Certainly, this was useful for a father who had daughters that he needed to marry off – for whom a raped daughter was ‘damaged goods’.
They had a natural aversion to murder and theft so they had good reason to write in prohibitions on murder and theft. Since they wanted their wives and children to obey them unquestionably they wrote commandments and prohibitions into scripture that sais that the husband was the head of the household with a right to rule while others had a duty to obey.
The eating of shellfish is an abomination because – well, have you ever looked at a shellfish? They’re disgusting. My wife has a hard time with peel-and-eat shrimp. So, of course, eating those things must be considered an abomination.
Some of these prohibitions are likely grounded on pure superstition and prejudice. Perhaps past generations thought that planting two different types of crops next to each other meant bad luck. In a religious context, "bad luck" is easily translated into "God's disapproval." If written in modern times, a Bible might well have prohibitions on hotels having a 13th floor or special commandments against walking underneath a ladder.
Of course, once the Bible was written (by people appealing to their own prejudices), it became a standard that future generations can appeal to that is outside of their own prejudice. Yet, we clearly see that the Bible is not used this way.
People pick and choose which parts of the Bible they are going to obey and which they are going to ignore. How do people decide which parts of the Bible represent actual moral requirements and prohibitions, and which can be ignored? We can easily say of those who think that the Bible actually serves as an external moral standard that:
This seems so naïve, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing [when deciding how to interpret biblical text or choosing which text to obey or ignore], when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.
Current bigotry against homosexuals is not something that people get out of the Bible – something that people disapprove of because the Bible calls it an abomination. If people got their morality out of the Bible then they would be just as intent on protesting the eating of shrimp as they would homosexual sex. Instead, anti-homosexual bigotry is a cultural prejudice that gets read into scripture. It is one of the prejudices that people appeal to in deciding which parts of the Bible they want to pretend to be the word of God, and which part they want to ignore.
Long-time readers of this blog know that I do believe in an ‘external moral standard’ in a sense. Morality has to do with which malleable desires people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit. The vast majority of the ‘people generally’ are external. So, determining facts about how certain desires will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires is generally an examination of facts outside of the agent – of external facts, and not something that can be answered by appeal to personal feelings.
I do not deny the power of self-deception or even blatant disregard for moral facts. These things clearly exist, and these are things that we need to combat. Desire utilitarianism, handles these problems to an extent because it is concerned with the manipulation of malleable desires. A person with good desires has nothing to deceive himself about. He gets to do what he likes and at the same time does what he should because moral institutions have brought the two into harmony.
Fraser makes another point about atheism and morality that is true, but he falsely thinks that it is a problem.
Of course, atheists are often part of other traditions — political ones, for instance — that can generate public checks against self-deception. But, simply as atheists, they have little to perform this task.
It is true that atheism itself does not provide any moral checks on behavior. This is also true of heliocentrism (the view that the sun is at the center of the solar system), Einstein's theory of relativity, the theory of plate tectonics, atomic theory, and evolution. None of these provide the person who believes them with moral guidance – because none of these are moral theories. They are purely descriptive theories about how the universe is (or isn't, as the case may be). None of these are theories about how the world should be.
The fact that plate tectonic theory does not provide us with moral guidance is hardly a problem with plate tectonic theory. It is not a reason to reject the theory and provide it with one that does provide moral guidance. Similarly, the fact that atheism is not a moral theory is not a reason to reject it in favor of some type of religious theory where morality comes from God. It is a theory that says that if we are going to find morality, we must look for it someplace other than in a God that does not exist. We need to find morality in something that does exist
Desires exist. Desires are reasons for action – so they lend themselves quite naturally to claims about what a person has reasons-for-action to do or to refrain from doing. That which fulfills desires are good, and that which thwarts desires are bad. Yet, on this model, desires themselves can also be good or bad. Desires that tend to fulfill other desires are good, and desires that tend to thwart other desires are bad. Furthermore, we can act so as to promote or inhibit certain malleable desires. So, we have reasons-for-action to promote malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires.
People are mistaken when they try to find morality in God. What they are finding is not an external morality, but a set of prejudices and superstitions that primitive human beings (self-deceived and substantially ignorant of the world around them) made up in their own mind and assigned to God. Naturally, they assigned to God the moral values they liked, or that benefited them in some way.
In order to find morality we have to look for reasons for action that actually do exist – not those that primitive and superstitious people made up. Desires are reasons for action that exist. We find value in relationships between states of affairs and desires. And, finally, we find moral value in good and bad desires – in promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.