Monday, March 02, 2009

On Atheism and Immorality

A member of the studio audience had this to say about the relationship between atheism and immorality.

Reason why Atheism allows for evil:

1. If there is no God there is no such thing as objective morality

2. If morality is subjective then there is no reason why an evil man should not commit evil. As a matter of fact there is no such thing as evil if morality is subjective.

3. If morality is subjective there is no reason to resist an evil dictator when asked to do evil yourself.

4. The end result is the Soviet gulags.

What concerns me in this post is what would motivate a person to accept this relationship as opposed to an alternative relationship between atheism and morality.

This alternative says that, if it is the case that God created morality, then morality is built into the world. On this account, a person no more needs to believe in God to recognize and respond to (objective) morality than he needs to believe in God to recognize and respond to anything else that exists in the universe – such as trees.

Imagine hearing somebody starting an argument with the claim, If there is no God then there is no such thing as trees (because God made the trees and no trees would exist unless there was a God to make them). From here, that individual goes on to argue that as a result of the atheist denial of where trees come from, atheists are at constant risk of running into trees as they drive. From this, he concludes that no atheist should be allowed to drive.

It is clearly an absurd argument. Atheists and theists may disagree over how trees originated. However, this does not imply that they have any reason to disagree over the fact that trees currently exist.

The same model can be applied to morality. Atheists and theists may disagree over where morality comes from. However, if morality truly does exist as a part of the universe, the atheist should be able to detect and respond to it as well as theists, just as they are both equally qualified to detect and respond to trees that exist.

The question that I am asking in this post is, "What would motivate a theist to prefer the first option over the second?"

The difference between the two is that the second option casts the atheists as moral equals. It says that, in spite of the fact that there is a disagreement of how the universe came about, there is still the fact that we live in the same universe governed by the same physical and moral laws.

On this model, atheists and theists are capable of being equally competent (and equally incompetent) moralists just as they are capable of being equally competent (and equally incompetent) drivers.

The first option, on the other hand, allows the theist who adopts it to see the atheist as morally inferior and beneath him. It is a way of denigrating the atheist in the minds and hearts of the community at large. In doing so, it provides both political and economic dividends. It gives the illusion of justifying the practice of putting a sign on all elected offices and positions of public trust that says, "Reserved for those who trust in God or support a nation under God." – and to use that political influence to channel economic power to those who share these beliefs.

It is, in fact, the common practice of the unjust to first cast the victims of their injustice as being morally inferior. Arians and Jews, Europeans and the Native Americans, The slave holder and the slave. The first step is always to promote an alternative that says, "We are the morally superior group while they . . . they are the slime and the filth – the agents of all that you have good reason to hate and despise, such as the Soviet Galug and the Nazi death camps."

It's quite ironic, I think, that the very act by which the theist adopts the first model over the second - declaring that he morally superior to the lowly and despicable atheist - is an act that no morally decent person would perform or condone. It is, itself, an immoral and unjust adopted purely for the sake of unjust political, social, and economic advantage.


Hayley/Shu Fen said...

Hey, great insight :) i'm an agnostic/atheist and i hate it when theists denigrate non-believers as immoral and unethical.


Back Story said...

Let me clarify something first. I am not asking how an atheist can be moral or know moral truths, that is self evident. My question is about how are these objective moral truths grounded. To me it seems that without the presence of a transcendent being, what we call morality is just the sociobiological spin offs of the evolutionary process. Most reasonable people know and feel that killing the innocent is wrong. Without a transcendent being, killing someone is not really wrong, but just not fashionable given the way we have evolved. Going against this inherent "feeling" would not mean that you are doing something morally wrong, but just that you are going against an internal mechanism that you have for self preservation. We go against these mechanism all the time, and we don't conclude that we were wrong in doing so.

So given atheism, how does someone ground objective morality?

Martin Freedman said...

Hi Backstory

"My question is about how are these objective moral truths grounded"
This is a good question and you have come to one of the best blogs to answer that question.

"...To me it seems that without the presence of a transcendent being, what we call morality is just the sociobiological spin offs of the evolutionary process."
This is a deep mistake in two ways.

This is a false dichotomy as there are far more than these two choices. Desire utilitarianism presents a different and far better grounding of morality than either of your two alternatives.

The other mistake is to think that a transcendental being is required to ground morality. It is the opposite as any such transcendental being would know if they are honest and compassionate.
Far from being objective this is just about the most subjective basis imaginable, in many ways.

"So given atheism, how does someone ground objective morality?"
This is another deep mistake. It is quite false to look at this in terms of atheism versus theism, morality is and should be available to one and all regardless of theistic beliefs.

A question you should seriously ask yourself is "What better reason can there be to give up a theistic based morality than your desire for an objective grounds for morality?" (since these are mutually exclusive).

This is not a threat to your belief in god, just over a certain conception of it. If god is good it would most likely be a desirist!

Unknown said...

We ground morality in our nature. Our evolved moral sense, refined, guides us. The pathological ones just don't have that sense, but others just need to refine it. People need to take it from a "tribal" basis to be the planetary ethic that the late Paul Kurtz advocated.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Morgan Lamberth

There is no such thing as an evolved moral sense.

If there were, then either morality must be a thing in the word capable of being sensed - like photons or sound waves - and no such property has ever been revealed by physics.

Ot no matter what we sensed, it would be moral. Rape, racism, the murder of our step children (as is done by lions) all become moral if we merely sense it to be.