A member of the studio audience asked the following question a few days ago:
I'm really curious about this: What do atheists say to other atheists who have differing moral values?
TGP gave a fitting response:
Are you really asking this question in the comments thread of an atheist ethics blog?
With nearly 1600 posts and nearly 20,000 comments - mostly from atheists - it should not be at all difficult to discover what atheists say to each other on matters of morality. And it is quite clearly NOT what the anti-atheist bigots like to pretend to themselves and claim to others what atheists say.
Yet, that question brings up a question in response.
What does a theist say to somebody whose moral values differ from his own?
Here, I am particularly concerned with those theists who hold that religion is a matter of faith. It is not subject to proof or to reason. Instead, some divine revelation of one sort or another is supposed to spring forth onto the mind causing the person who experiences it to judge this or that religion to be correct.
The problem is, two people who suffer from divine revelation can come to believe in two different gods or, just as easily, two different interpretations of the demands of the same god. Scriptures are so filled with contradiction and ambiguities that a person can easily find in them what he or she wants to find.
Now, the consequence is two people, each stricken with absolute certainty that theirs is the flawlessly perfect interpretation of divine will on account of some mystical experience, who are in crucial disagreement over some relevant moral fact.
Like, one person believes that this area of land was given to them by their God - while another group of people held that the land was given to them instead.
Or Person 1 holds that anybody who should question his interpretation of scripture shall be put to death - while Person 2 believes exactly the same thing about his interpretation.
Let is not ignore what is actually going on in these cases. As I have written before, people do not get their morality from God. They assign their morality to God. When a person has such a mystical experience, it does not come with a set of moral revelations. Rather, the agent himself builds his moral sentiments into his mystical experience. This allows him to take his own sentiments and options and give them divine origin.
This is a very common and easy way for people, in effect, to turn themselves into Gods. Suddenly, their morality is not their own opinion based on beliefs handed down to them from the previous generation combined with his or her own observations - subject to all sorts of human flaws. Instead, it is the divine word of an imagined super-being that is all knowing and who could not possibly be mistaken. When people take their own sentiments and prejudices and assign them to a god, they can give those attitudes a certainty that is beyond question.
They can even go so far - as some have in human history - as to say, "Anybody who dares to disagree with me . . . um . . . I mean . . . with God . . . shall be put to death." And they act on that new ultimately arrogant sentiment.
So, what does such a theist then say to those whose values differ from their own?
We see the answer in a whole set of slaughters that are described in various religious text.
We see it in history, in the Crusades and Inquisitions of European history. We see it in the capture of Jerusalem where the Christian soldiers slaughtered the whole population of Muslims who had been contaminating the holy city with their presence for centuries.
We see it in the 30 Years War which all but depopulated whole sections of Europe. One religious faction would enter a village dominated by another religious faction, herd all of the villagers into the church, lock them in, then set the church on fire. The fact that some of the villagers (claimed to be) followers of the same religion as the attackers often did not deter those attackers. They would kill everybody, and trust to their god to sort the heretics from the faithful in the afterlife.
We see it in the bloody English civil wars between Catholics and Protestants of the same era - in the religious purges that drove so many people out of Europe to seek a new start in America.
For those who know history, those people did not come to America to seek religious freedom. They came to America so that they can leave a situation in which they were too weak to impose their religious dogma on others, to create a new city in the wilderness where they had the numbers and the power to becomes the dictators of what is correct in matters of religion.
We continue to see the effects today of different groups 'discussing' matters of religion that each hold to be beyond the matter of reason an evidence and, thus, not subject to debate. We saw it on 9/11, and we have seen it over and over again since then.
These are the signs of what one religious person says to another whose values differ from their own - particularly for those religions that hold that religion is a matter of faith and divile revelation and, as such, cannot be demonstrated or argued for in any way.
If you cannot persuade people by reason and argument, if you cannot offer anything in the way of proof that you are right and they are wrong, then the only form of persuasion that is left is brought about by sword, or gun, or bomb.
I am not saying that religion is necessarily like this. Nor am I saying that all religion is, in fact, like this. The world contains a rich variety of religious beliefs, including those that hold matters of religion are private and matters of morality must be settled by that which can be demonstrated across all religions.
Nor am I saying that atheists are immune from the arrogance and certainty that make people prone to violence against those who disagree with them. I fear that those who hold that religion is the root of all violence will blind themselves to the fact that it is arrogance, not religion, that makes it easy for people to pick up weapons and kill those who disagree. Atheism does not come with any built-in immunity from arrogance. Communists and anarchists lacking a belief in God have not lacked the ability to carry out atrocities.
There are people who hold that a secular argument backed by reason must sit at the root of all matters of social or government policy - that they cannot be based on this group's or that group's personal articles of faith without opening society up to the violence of religious civil war (if the religious factions have equal power) or religious oppression (if one religious faction is more powerful than all others).
Yet, these moral truths that transcend religion - that allow the members of one religious faction to live in peace with others who do not share their values or their specific interpretations of scripture - are just as available to the atheist as they are to the theist.
In fact, the atheist is in a better position with respect to these moral truths that transcend religion and allow peace among different factions, because the atheist will never experience conflict between those moral truths and his or her religious beliefs.
There is no article of faith for those moral truths that transcend across religions to contradict.
What do atheists say to other atheists who have differing moral values? Well, what do (or should) theists say to other theists who do not share their specific religious prescriptions?