Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Atheists' Problem with Morality

Note: I will be at the First Freedom First Simulcast at the Denver Pavilions 15 in downtown Denver on Wednesday night, March 26.

I am beginning to see a number of articles floating about professing that atheists have a problem with morality. We have Dinesh D'Souza's book, What’s So Great About Christianity. The movie “Expelled” is also asserting that atheists have a problem with morality – associating atheists with Hitler and Stalin as if to say, “Stalin was an atheist; therefore, all atheists are evil.”

In the Collegiate Times, Allison Aldrich, wrote “Defending morality in an atheist's culture is challenging,” and in the Calgary Harold, Mark Milke recently wrote, “New breed of atheist treads too much on glib ground.”

The natural response to these types of assertions would be to demonstrate how I can make and defend moral claims without appeal to supernatural entities. However, I have already drummed that particular song. I have 900 posts on this blog, four books – two online (“Desire Utilitarianism” and “The Cult of Justice and Will”), and two for sale (“A Better Place” and “A Perspective on the Pledge”) which demonstrate my competence to make and defend moral claims, and a few other essays and articles floating around.

Today, I am not in a mood for repeating any of those arguments.

Today, I want to point out how the people who are making these arguments, while asserting their moral superiority, demonstrate how utterly blind they are to their own moral faults.

I want to start with the principle that no person should assume their moral superiority over others – or the moral inferiority of others. Equal respect for other people as people requires that one begin with the assumption that they are our moral equals. It is only after evidence is provided to the contrary – that we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt – that a person lacks certain moral qualities that we are then justified in condemning them.

For example, since I can show that these authors presume the moral inferiority of others, I have the evidence I need to morally condemn them for their arrogance and bigotry. I have no right to assume their arrogance and bigotry. I have an obligation to assume that they are my moral eequals. It is only because they provide evidence of their arrogance and bigotry that I have justification for making these accusations.

Not only do these authors presume the moral inferiority of others, they do so on the basis of faith. This must be one of the most convenient aspects of faith – what everybody who claims to have faith ultimately asserts to have faith in is their own infallibility. The person who defends his beliefs on the basis of faith say, for all practical purposes, “There is no way that I could possibly be wrong in what I believe. If there is any conflict in what I believe and what others claim, the fault must be theirs. Because of faith, I do not have to listen to any evidence or any objection to my own views. I can simply assert that they are true.”

‘Faith’ ultimately is another word for ‘arrogance’ wrapped up in a pretty white ribbon.

It is particularly convenient for a ‘person of faith’ to be able to proclaim his superiority over others in matters of ethics. What the four authors above are actually asserting is that, “In virtue of my religion – a matter in which I could not be in error – I have drawn certain moral principles – a matter of which I also could not be in error. Since my ‘faith’ gives me perfect moral knowledge and access to absolute moral truth, it follows by necessity that any who might disagree with me must be in error. It follows by necessity that I am morally superior to them, and they are morally inferior to me.”

This is the function ‘faith’ plays in these disputes.

For the person who has intellectual integrity and a decent respect for other persons, it is not enough to merely assume that others are his moral equals (unless he finds evidence to the contrary). He cannot be too eager to find that evidence. When a person grasps onto weak evidence of fault in others too quickly, he proves that he is motivated more by a desire to see others as inferior than by a true concern with justice. Justice holds the evidence at arm’s length until it becomes too powerful to be resisted. Bigotry embraces the first hint of an argument that others are morally inferior, because it has the benefit of giving one’s hatred a warm and comfortable home.

For 2500 years there has been a well known problem with any attempt to derive morality from religion. Plato wrote about it in Euthyphro, where he had his main character Socrates ask, “Is something good because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is good?”

If it is good because it is loved by the goods, then any atrocity can be made good, simply by having God love it. If God were to love the slow roasting of young children on an open fire, the proponent of this method would have to say that this is good.

If, instead, we say that God could never love the slow roasting of a child over an open fire, then we must say that goodness does not depend on what God loves. Goodness is something that is independent of God – something that even God must appeal to in order to determine if he should enjoy the roasting of a young child or not. Whatever external standard God appeals to, we can appeal to as well, without God.

There are, of course, a group of pathetic responses to this. One says, “God appeals to a standard of good, but that standard of good is his own nature.” Okay, fine, then if God’s nature were to love the slow roasting of children, then it would be good.

There is a long and colorful history of this debate. However, none of these four authors give serious consideration to these problems. They follow the pattern of grasping the first argument they can find that gives their hatred a warm and comfortable home – regardless of its flaws. In their eagerness to assert their moral superiority over others, they show themselves to be hate-mongering bigots too eager to condemn without sound evidence to actually deserve to be called ‘moral’.

Another area in which these people show their moral failings is in their use of hasty generalizations. Their argument follows the pattern, “Some atheists have done bad things; therefore, all atheists are evil.” This is the paradigm example of bigotry. It follows the same pattern as, “Some Muslims perform terrorist acts so all Muslims are terrorists,” or “Some black people were caught using drugs so all black people are drug addicts,” or “Suzie, who is blond, did something dumb, so all blonde people are dumb.”

It also follows the pattern of, “Some religious people brought down the World Trade Center in a terrorist attack, so all religious people are evil.” I never said that the four authors above, or theists in general, were the only people actually capable of bigotry. However, the fact that some atheists are guilty of the same crime does not prove that the theists mentioned above are innocent.

This is how bigotry is defined – by an eagerness to expand the group of people guilty of some wrongdoing far beyond the circle of those who are actually guilty. It is motivated by hatred for all members of the group and a desire to see them as inferior or deserving of harm that blinds the person to the fallacy of ‘hasty generalization.’

The morally responsible way to respond to an alternative point of view is to keep one’s accusations focused on those who are actually guilty. For example, it would be perfectly legitimate to argue against ‘new atheist’ writer Sam Harris that he is an act-utilitarian who believes that ‘utility’ is measured in terms of happiness and absence of suffering is the measure of all moral value. One can then argue that act-utilitarian theories fail (because they do not properly respect the fact that actions are caused by desires), and that where happiness and truth diverge, value follows truth.

However, from here, it is the essence of bigotry to assert that because Sam Harris’s moral arguments fail that all atheists have a problem with morality. From here, any attempt to make that leap of logic proves that the person making it is a bigot who cares more about selling hate than he does about justice. Because somewhere out there, per chance, there may well be an atheist who rejects act-utilitarian moral theories and happiness/suffering theories of value.

Similarly, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn the four authors mentioned above for demonstrating the qualities of hate-mongering bigots. However, it would be entirely unfair to then generalize from this to say that all theists are hate-mongering bigots. The accusation can only properly be applied to that subset of theists who think that it is perfectly acceptable to presume their moral superiority over others, to do so on the basis of faith, to grasp whatever arguments they can find however weak that appear gives this hate a warm home, and to over-generalize from the failings of some members of a group to the whole group.

Consequently, I – the atheist who apparently has a ‘problem with morality’ – will not be guilty of that particular wrong. My accusations apply specifically to D’Souza, the people backing the movie ‘Expelled’, Aldrich, and Milke, and any who should perform the same wrongs. Any theist who does not follow this particular path does not deserve to be subject to the same condemnation, merely because they share the trait with these guilty parties of having a belief in God. It is only those who share the traits of groundless arrogance, hate, and bigotry who deserve to share the same condemnation.

Yet, it is fair to say that the culture that these four belong to – insofar as the culture does not see fit to condemn them for their wrongdoing, but instead applauds them for their demonstrations of hate and bigotry – deserves to be condemned as well. This does not imply that everybody within the culture deserves condemnation. However, it does imply that those who do not deserve condemnation appear too few in numbers and too weak to have much of an effect on that society.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, excellent blog. I have been reading the interesting book "Jews, God and History", by Max Dimont. As an Atheist, one thing makes me sad: the fact that the community which people of religion have (such as the Jews, as that book shows) may be unattainable for us atheists. Jews have a feeling of "family". Churches do also. Where can atheist get that? That is one thing I wish someone would solve.

Emu Sam said...


Try community centers. Many cities have one. But you have to be active in promotions and activities. If there is none in your community, your first effort could be to create one.

Instead of a preacher making the speeches (and thus the decisions), I envision something like a Quaker meeting, with those who want to speak standing up and speaking.

Or you could just join a local club for your hobby of interest. This is actually the same thing. In the first, the thing you all have in common is location. In clubs, it gets a bit more specific.

Anonymous said...

"For example, since I can show that these authors presume the moral inferiority of others, I have the evidence I need to morally condemn them for their arrogance and bigotry."

Naming the title of a book isn't evidence.

Martin Freedman said...


"Naming the title of a book isn't evidence."

Now you are being dubiously and questionably misleading. I would say that the anyone who assumes or presupposes their moral superiority is evidence of their moral inferiority. Of course, one needs to check, if possible, if they do have any arguments to support their case before arriving at an informed conclusion. The scenarios that Alonzo is talking about exhibit an old repeated pattern and there is nothing new to indicate they have any innovative arguments to support their case.

Vaal said...


I'm an atheist who enjoys your blog. I've been interested in your DU theory for quite a while. I think it does a compelling job of explaining a lot of things about morality.

You are a careful thinker in general, which makes it somewhat disappointing to see you get a little sloppy with this:

"Another area in which these people show their moral failings is in their use of hasty generalizations. Their argument follows the pattern, “Some atheists have done bad things; therefore, all atheists are evil.” This is the paradigm example of bigotry."

None of the authors you've cited made that argument. In fact Dinesh D'Souza and Mark Milke specifically deny this. Their argument doesn't even "follow that pattern." They acknowledge atheists often act morally. In fact, aside from truly fringe nut-jobs, I'd be hard pressed to think of ANY christian writers or debaters that have made such an argument. Rather, they are talking about what they argue is the logic of atheism, and it's implications for morality (e.g. that it can not provide a basis for morality without a God, and that some of the crimes committed by atheists are logical extensions of this problem).

Their argument against atheist morality is much the same type of argument you and I make against Christian morality. We say that Christian theism does not provide the basis for morality, and to the extent we point to "evil" done by Christians it isn't to say Christians are evil: it's to point out instances which demonstrate the
liability of deriving morality from
Christian tenets.

Similarly, those believers don't say the crimes of some atheists mean that atheists are evil: they point to the crimes of some atheists as indications of the liabilities of non-belief in God.

The argument made by those believers may be wrong, but it isn't of the straw-man type you are using as an example.

Of course, I side with you regarding the bogus claim that morality is derived from the Christian God. But let us be fair: our theistic opponents in the vast majority of cases, and in the specific cases you've cited here, are NOT making the argument you've accused them of making, which concludes "all atheists are evil."



Alonzo Fyfe said...

Technically, the objections raised above are correct. The argument that I am criticizing does not say, "All atheists are evil." The more accurate conclusion of the arguments I am criticizing is, "No atheist has any reason to be good." Or, "Any fully consistent atheist who has not made a mistake in applying his own philosophy to his actions would be evil."

While admitting to the possibility of some atheists being good, these are atheists who have made a mistake - typically by internalizing Christian morality and failing to see how this is in conflict with their (other) atheist beliefs.

See, for example, Dinesh D'Souza's Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history.

This adjustment, from "all atheists are evil" to "all consistent atheists would be evil" in the above argument would not be a substantial change to the posting.

Vaal said...

Hi again Alonzo. I hope you are still reading these comments.

You replied:


This adjustment, from "all atheists are evil" to "all consistent atheists would be evil" in the above argument would not be a substantial change to the posting.


Yes it would be a substantial change, which is exactly what I'm trying to say.

In the passage I've cited, you lobbed the charge of "moral failing" and "bigotry" at some theists, based upon your misrepresentation of their argument. As you are an ethicist I know you would want to be careful and consistent when making such charges, which is why I'm bothering to pursue this point.

“Some atheists have done bad things; therefore, all atheists are evil.” is indeed THE FORM OF ARGUMENT that leads to bigotry. And more importantly it is by nature an invalid argument (so far as one is aware of instances to the contrary).

"all consistent atheists would be evil" is not THE FORM OF ARGUMENT that necessarily implies bigotry, nor is it the argument of a bigot. And it is not by nature an invalid argument. The particular argument may be wrong, but it's not by nature invalid and it's not the type of argument exclusive to bigotry.

For instance, I might look at certain tenets of Christianity and say "If the person really held to this tenet, we would expect X." E.g. if a Christian really believed his tenet that there is an All Powerful, All Seeing, All Present God who cares about what you do and who frowns upon certain activities, let alone will end up judging the fate of your eternal soul, then we would expect someone acting consistently
with this tenet not to engage in proscribed behavior. Not when it is their very tenet that such proscribe behavior is being watched by this judging God.

And yet, of course, plenty of Christians act in church like there is a God present, and seem to put that belief on the shelf when necessary to act as if God isn't present (e.g. to engage in illicit behaviors, as many Christians do).

It is not "Bigoted" or a "moral failing" to point out that a Christian acting consistently with his tenet that God is ever present would not engage in immoral behavior. Nor for that matter would it be "bigoted" to point out that a Christian acting consistently with other tenets of his faith (e.g. 10 Commandments/ Jesus' philosophy) would act in "x" manner and not in "Y" manner. Christians often act
inconsistently with the tenets of their faith.

Now, any of the above arguments I make about Christian behavior may be WRONG when we get into the details (I may have missed mitigating tenets or whatever). But the FORM of the argument is not by nature invalid, nor is it by nature a bigoted form of reasoning.

Likewise with Dinesh D'Souza's. His argument: Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history, relies on the same form of reasoning I've given about Christianity. "If atheists acted consistently with their other beliefs, they would act like X."

His argument may very well be wrong (we know it is). But it is not of the same FORM of the bigoted, invalid argument as "“Some atheists have done bad things; therefore, all atheists are evil.”

Therefore you shouldn't lob the charge of "moral failing" and "bigoted" at that argument on the basis it is essentially the same as "Some atheists have done bad things; therefore, all atheists are evil.”

It isn't the same form of argument at all.



Anonymous said...

Prof, not only is D'Souza (and others like him) wrong, he is absurdly wrong. His argument of "any atheist who acted fully consistently with his beliefs would be a mass murderer" is so grossly and obviously incorrect that it's nearly inconceivable that anyone, even without any level of education, could make such a mistake. It is the equivilent of claiming "if H2O acted consistent with it's chemical nature, all the world's oceans would be made of hot steam."

When someone makes such a gross error of reasoning it is fair to ask "how could an otherwise intelligent person have made such an error?" And it is consistent with past observations that such a mistake reveals that this person has intentionally blinded himself to his own errors to fuel his own bigotted hatred of the target group, and to spread that hatred as far and wide as he can. The fact that he continues to cling to his error even after being shown it's flaws is further evidence that this is his motivation. As such, it IS bigotry and not flawed logic that drives his sorts of argument. We can point to his words and say to others "This is exactly the same sort of speach used by the Nazi's in the 30's to demonize the "dirty Jews". Is this who you want representing you?"