Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rob Olson on Atheist Morality

In the California Agate, columnist Rob Olson wrote a second column responding to criticism he received in a first column about atheists. In that first column, he said it was understandable that people are unwilling to vote for atheists - because atheists have no grounding for their morality.

It was a column worthy of criticism. I think that it is quite good that he got this criticism. In general, I am beginning to see a welcome trend, where claims being made that are hostile towards atheists are getting a much deserved response.

I wrote a piece covering his response to that criticism,


You wrote in a recent column that you were ready for a second wave of outraged atheists shouting in your inbox. I wish to contribute to this project, but I tend not to be much into shouting.

I write a blog called "atheist ethicist" ( where I discuss moral matters.

When I was 16, knowing that some day I will die and nothing of me will survive but my contribution to this world, I decided I wanted to make the world a better place. I went to college for 12 years to study moral philosophy, have 2 undergraduate degrees, and missed out on my PHD because of an unfortunate illness (not mine) and lack of funds. Wanting to make the world a better place, it seems, is not a profitable career goal.

I find your statements contradictory. You express a view as if to support it. Then, when challenged, you say, "I was just mentioning it. I wasn't actually endorsing it." Yet, simply by deciding what to put into your column you demonstrate what you think is worthy of being mentioned. There are an infinite number of claims you could have put into your column. Why did you pick the claims that you did, if not because you thought them important and worthy of being mentioned?

As for your 'perception' that atheists are not charitable, I would hold that it is the same as the bigot's 'perception' that Jews are greedy, blacks are lazy, and that mexicans are dirty. You have no objective evidence to go on, only 'impressions'. However, these types of 'impressions' are fed by our prejudices. People see what they want to see. It takes a serious attempt to look at the facts objectively to see what is really there.

There is a reason why atheists do not build hospitals or engage in charity in the name of atheism. It is because atheism is not an organized religion. An atheist does not make a contribution in the name of 'no god'. He makes a contribution . . . period.

For example, two leading atheist billionaires - Bill Gates and Warren Buffett - have contributed $60 billion in private charity. This is more than all of the top 50 Christian billionaires combined. Yet, nowhere in their charitable work will you see the word 'atheist'. This is because atheism is not a religion. Atheism is simply a belief that, because there is no God to take care of us, we must take care of each other.

There is no more reason to create an 'atheist hospital' then there is to create a 'heliocentrist hospital' or a 'string theorist hospital'. Yet, the person who infers from this that atheists are less generous shows that his opinions are drawn more from bigotry than from fact. Clearly, the fact that there are no heliocentrist hospitals does not imply that heliocentrists are not charitable. It only means that their charity does not wear the label 'done in the name of the belief that the sun is at the center of the solar system'.

And yet if those same heliocentrists were forced to endure living a society that takes as its motto a pledge of allegiance to geocentrism, or a national motto that claims, "We believe in Geocentrism", heliocentrists have every right and reason to protest, don't you think?

Then, the geocentrists go before the cameras and before the courts and say, "When we pledge allegiance to geocentrism, and put 'We Believe in Geocentrism' on our money, we are not saying that geocentrism is better than heliocentrism or trying to establish geocentrism as some sort of national standard." The fact that they actually seem to believe this obvious absurdity is even more disturbing than the fact that they make the claim.

Bad inferences, such as the inferences that 'atheists do not give to charity in the name of atheism; therefore, they do not give to charity', are instances of drawing implications that some group of people tend to be inferior based on poor evidence - betrays a want to view those people as inferior, and a hunt for evidence (good or bad) that supports that prejudice.

It does no good to attempt to salvage the situation by saying, "I did not say that ALL atheists are bad." This is an example of the racist cliche, "I'm not prejudice. Some of my best friends are black." The charge of prejudice is not defeated by showing that, through extraordinary effort, a few individuals might have a chance to rise to the top of the atheist crop and be viewed by you as equals. It has to do with whether you judge atheists as a whole fairly or unfairly. The invalid inferences and groundless assertions you expressed above prove that you are not able to do this.

More importantly, at least to me, and to any fair-minded person, it does not matter what 'most atheists' do. I have no control over their actions, so what other atheists decide to do is their own responsibility, and not mine. If they want to come to me and ask for my advice, I have a whole blog full of advice to give them. Yet, my responsibility ends with that advice. They are responsible for what they decide to do with it.

Judging individuals as members of a group - claiming that 'atheists' as a group are inferior to 'Christians' as a group is the essence of bigotry. I know that people on both sides of the divide are guilty of this wrong. Anybody who reads my blog will find sufficient evidence, I trust, that I am not.

However, the same cannot be said of your article. Near the end of your article, you close with "I'm not saying we should believe in God because he demands it or I demand it, but that I think it helps out society."

You explicitly said, in your first article, you wrote, "It is only to say that if I have that adjective alone to go off of, that sole characteristic, I would begin with an unfavorable impression of the person."

In other words, if you had to choose from among a group of people who to have as your neighbors and who you would wish not to see move in next to you, you think your neighborhood would be better with Christian neighbors, and that the atheists be required to move on to the next town.

This would help out your society.

At best, you may be willing to accept your share of atheist neighbors, simply because you would not want all of them forced on the next village. But, as a matter of personal preference, atheist neighbors are not to be preferred. They do not help out society.

That, I'm afriad, is the essence of bigotry.

It is particularly ironic that you claim that theism gives you a moral advantage over atheists. It certainly does not seem to have helped you to avoid treating others unfairly and unjustly in this regard.

Sorry for the shouting.

Alonzo Fyfe

Atheist Ethicist


nullifidian said...

Great response, Alonzo. I especially liked this part:

There is a reason why atheists do not build hospitals or engage in charity in the name of atheism. It is because atheism is not an organized religion. An atheist does not make a contribution in the name of 'no god'. He makes a contribution . . . period.

RichardBarnes said...

In stating "atheists have no basis for morality", theists frequently misunderstand that the source of morality or one's ethics is simply one's set of values and, as it happens, every human being alive has values of one sort or another. For that matter, most forms of life have values from the extremely abstract and complex to the extremely concrete and simple. One's set of values either leads one to a generally atheistic or naturalistic position or one that is generally theistic or more simply supernaturalistic and any point in between. Theists believe that the deity or deities they believe in are the basis for their values. In reality, the basis of their values is the fact they are living and that there are very specific requirements to remain living as dictated by the natural world. Ironically, so-called "atheist" values have the exact same basis. In my view and of those like me, through errors in judgment concerning themselves and nature, theists form values misaligned with the truths of their own lives and of nature in general. "Atheists" or those who depend on the facts of nature and their origins and place in it tend to arrive at values more in alignment with them.

To put it plainly, theists seem to have far less rational and reasonable and thus sane basis for their morality than those typically identified as "atheist."