Finishing up this week’s theme on how nice atheists should be I would like to note a continuing deficiency among atheist writers – the degree to which they shun genuine moral language – terms like virtue and evil.
Even though they deny a necessary relationship between religion and morality on an intellectual level, when it comes to actually using moral language it is as if they feel ashamed or nervous. It is as if they hold that the use of a moral term is like quoting a biblical passage – something that no decent atheist could do.
I have a nice definition of evil that has nothing to do with any type of God or supernatural entity – that makes reference only to things found in nature.
A person is evil to the degree that he has malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit (because that desire tends to thwart other desires), or to the degree that he lacks a malleable desire that people generally have reason to promote (because that desire tends to fulfill other desires).
Conveniently, saying that somebody is evil means directing people generally to afflict condemnation on that person. Being identified as, “somebody who has malleable desires that tends to thwart other desires’ should be enough to make anybody nervous. It says that he (and people like him) are a rational target for condemnation. It directs people generally to treat the target individual with hostility, and this is something that no individual has reason to seek.
None of this requires any type of supernatural or divine element.
Of course, many religious people will raise the challenge, “How can you call me evil? You do not believe in a God. Without a God there is no morality. Your assertion that I am evil is, itself, an admission that there is a God from which evil springs.”
This type of circular reasoning is to be expected from a bunch of self-serving, hate-mongering bigots. “You want to think this because it gives you an excuse to make arrogant presumptions as to your own moral superiority. You like the thought that you are morally above everybody else, so you desperately grab onto whatever excuse touches your brain that gives you the ego stroking you so desperately crave.”
This is as legitimate an answer as any, and one that can be sufficiently demonstrated. People generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit the type of egoistic self-importance exhibited in the remark the comment above is responding to. The moral tool that they have for inhibiting arrogance is by targeting examples of arrogance (even fictional examples of arrogance as depicted in art, for example) with condemnation and ridicule.
There are two unfortunate consequences of the atheist disposition to avoid actual moral language.
The first is that it yields the moral ground to the theists. It perpetuates the myth that morality only springs from religion when moral claims only come from those who profess to have a religious moral authority. When atheists make moral claims, and they mean what they say, it gets people accustomed to the idea of morality coming from a non-religious source. It would be useful for people to get a stronger taste of this type of claim.
The second is that it leaves fertile ground on which to grow the types of entities that the people generally have reason to inhibit. If we are not calling people evil when they are evil, if we are shying away from applying the social tool of condemnation whose main use is to inhibit that which is condemned.
If we do not take steps to actively weed the social garden, we should not be at all surprise to find our garden dominated by weeds. And if you do not take steps to feed and water the good plants growing in the garden, we should not be surprised to discover that the good plants have shriveled up, failing in competition to the weeds and noxious plants that we allowed to flourish.
In using moral terms, it is important to use them accurately. There are also problems associated with praising that which people generally have the most and strongest reasons to inhibit (unknown to them, perhaps), and with inhibiting that which they have reason to promote. The use of moral language demands a certain amount of moral responsibility in making sure it is used accurately.
But not using moral language carries a certain amount of moral irresponsibility. Not using moral language means leaving fertile ground for immorality to grow. In the case of atheist reluctance to use moral language, it feeds the illusion that morality belongs in the realm of the theist. Neither effect can be counted as a good thing.