Thursday, January 03, 2013

Moral Superiority: Atheists versus Theists

In yesterday's post I wrote about judging oneself or members of one's group as being morally superior to another as if it was intrinsically wrong. I wrote as if it was simply evil (or not-good) for members of one group (theists, atheists) to see themselves as morally superior to those in another group.

Yet, I wrote of this as if to say that those who do not consider themselves morally superior to others are morally superior to those who consider themselves morally superior to others - a view that would be entirely incoherent.

How can one make sense of this?

As one who holds that there are moral facts, it follows that some people are, as a matter of fact, morally superior to others. The kind and helpful are morally superior to the cruel. Just people are morally superior to the unjust. Honest and fair people are morally superior to the dishonest and unfair.

In the absence of special arguments to the contrary, it is acceptable to believe and to report that some people are morally superior to others.

From this, it follows that it could be true and proper to say, "Theists are morally superior to atheists" or "atheists are morally superior to theists" - not as a matter of accident but as something that is inherent in being a theist or atheist. It is not automatically wrong or intrinsically wrong. However, it is wrong as a matter of fact.

It could be true, but it is not true. It could be true in the same sense that "The earth is no more than 10,000 years old" could be true. It could be true, but it is not true.

When a person holds a false and poorly grounded belief, we have reason to ask, "Why does she hold that particular false and poorly grounded belief, as opposed to one of the infinite equally false and poorly gounded beliefs that she could have adopted?

In answering this question, we may find the answer in some character trait that is not particularly admirable - that, in fact, is quite contemptible.

When we trace the belief that theists are inherently morally superior to atheists, or atheists are inherently morall superior to theists, we find our answer to the question, "Why have these people adopted this false and poorly grounded belef and not some other?" in tribal tendencies. Humans have a psychological disposition to form tribes and, as a member of a tribe, are prone to false and poorly founded beliefs about the moral superiority of tribe members over non-tribe members. They irrationally charge members of other tribes with wrongs that they ignore or explain away when committed by members of their own tribe.

Though this is a natural disposition, it is also one that we have reason to fight against. It leads to unjust accusations and actions. They often escalate into violence, sometimes on a global sacale. Some atheists want to blame "religion" for these wrongs. However, this is just an example of tribal bigotry at work. People who do not believe in a god still form tribes, and those tribes battle against each other. There is no reason to believe that tribal conflict would be resolved by the elimination of religion. It would almost certainly continue - perhaps among political, economic, geographical, or philosophical tribes.

We would be (tribal) fools to ignore the fact that athests are human beings prone to tribal thinking.

Certainly, the kind and helpful theist can honestly claim to be morally superior to the selfish and cruel atheist. However, it is in virtue of being kind and helpful rather than being a theist. The responsible atheist can consider herself superior to the irresponsible theist - but on the grounds of being responsible, not on the grounds of being an atheist.

Prejudice, discrimination, and other forms of injustice often leading to violence arises when one considers non-moral tribal factors - race, gender, national origin, social class, belief that there is a god - as grounds for discrimination.

At this point, one usually encounters claims such as, "Belief in a god makes one kinder, more helpful, and more honest - morally superior to those who do not believe in a god."

This is an assumption, often eagerly grasped because of tribal bigotry. Without the slightest bit of evidence - and even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary - tribalists clutch this belief with both hands precisely because tribal prejudice motivates them to do so.

Even if there was a relationship, each of us belongs to countless different groups. There are countless ways of identifying each of us an, in doing so, putting us into groups with others who share that quality. In each case, there is a percentage of that group that, for example, has been convicted of a violent crime. There is a group that I belong to where the percentage of others who share that quality have been convicted of a violent crime is the highest of any of the other groups. There is a group that I belong to where the percentage is lowest. This is a matter of mathematical necessity. Taking any group measurement and the percentage of its population convicted of a violent crime says almost nothing about the person, and a great deal about the bigotries of the people attaching significance to that relationship.

Perhaps it is the case that teaching people to believe in a particular type of god is the best way to promote the strongest dispositions towards kindness and helpfulness. However, it would take a great deal of specialized knowledge to make this claim - knowledge that none of us currently has. Furthermore, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and given the strong association with violence and other forms of injustice linked to tribal dispositions we know humans to have, we have an obligation to give others the benefit of the doubt. There is a reason to presume that the conclusions one graspes have more to do with tribal bigotries than with solid evidence and sound reasoning.

The moral and just person would make this assumption.

This is why it makes sense to condemn the atheist who assumes moral superiority over the theist, and to condemn the theist who assumes moral superiority over the atheist. In themselves, these are not moral qualities. Like gender, race, and national origin they are, instead, tribal distinctions. Where tribal distinctions are used, people have a strong disposition to grasp claims of moral superiority that evidence and reason cannot support - a disposition that deserves our condemnation.


Thesauros said...

Good post. As a point of interest it is impossible for a follower of Jesus to say s/he is better or more moral than anyone else, especially as you say, because s/he is a member of a "Jesus follower" group.

In fact part of the process of becoming a Christian is admitting and accepting that I am not good, that I am corrupt to the core and that I am in deep of forgiveness.

On another level, neither I nor any other follower of Jesus can say that we are better than any given atheist. The most that I can say is that I am light years better than before Jesus came into my life. I'm not more honest than any given atheist, but I'm much more honest than I was before Jesus came into my life. I'm not less violent than any given atheist, but I am less violent that I was before Jesus came into my life - and so on.

Anyhow, good post. Good luck on your journey.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

These are pretty words but, as a matter of fact, the vast majority of theists would not vote for an atheist as President. They consider atheists to be untrustworty and inherently dishonest. They are considered the groups less likely to share their values.

At times, atheists have been banned from giving testimony in a court of law because, it was assumed, they could not be counted on to tell the truth.

Atheism is used as a reason to deny parents custody of their children - it is assumed only a religious home can provide a proper grounds for raising a child.

The Boy Scouts - and other organizations - consider atheists to be unfit rolemodels for children. On their view, raising a child to be a proper, moral individual is not possible without a belief in a god.

Thesauros said...

They ARE beautiful words. Salvation is the most beautiful thing ever. Nowhere that I'm aware of did I disagree with what you wrote. I'm not talking about "theists" or even nominal Christians - those soon to tick off "non religious" and the next poll. I'm talking about those who make a concerted effort to follow the guidance of their Lord and Saviour. None of us have a lock on logic. We all say one thing but do another to varying degrees. None of us live up to our own code of ethics. We judge others by their behaviours while judging ourselves by our intentions.

Again, I agree with your post. I'm just saying that those Christians who follow the logic cannot stand in judgment of atheists - their beliefs? Absolutely, but the atheist as a human being - no.

And if you follow the logic you cannot agree with what you wrote in your reply as it is a prime example to tribal bias.