Thursday, January 26, 2012

Atheism as Lacking a Moral Foundation

On the issue of reclaiming moral language - the sixth component of Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists - atheists should learn to react to the claims that they lack a moral foundation the way Jews react to the phrase "Christ killers."

We react as if it is a mere intellectual error - requiring a rebuttal in terms of reason and evidence. However, it is more than that. Like the term "Christ killers" it is politically and socially useful. It serves to marginalize a group of people - to promote religious animosity and to brand those who use this claim as "morally superior" to the target group.

When people make certain mistakes, we have reason to ask why they make those mistakes and not some other. When it comes to the mistake that atheism lacks a moral foundation, we have reason to ask why the theist makes this mistake and not some other.

Religion is mostly make-believe. So, why make-believe that some target group lacks a foundation for their moral beliefs and attitudes? Why make-believe that, at any minute, they run the risk of breaking out in an orgy of political and social violence because they have no moral constraints? What makes this fiction more attractive than some other fiction?

They could have adopted a fiction in which the universe contains certain moral truths built into it by God, but which are available to everybody. They could have invented a religion that holds that moral facts are like scientific facts in that even an atheist can determine and assent to valid moral laws the way the atheist can still determine and assent to the laws of motion and thermodynamics.

Using this fiction, atheists and theists may disagree on the fundamental origin of the relevant type of laws. However, theists do not assert that because the atheist lacks belief in a divine author of the law of gravity he is in danger of floating away (and of causing those he convinces of floating away with him.) It isn't argued that some people choose atheism because they seek to flaunt the second law of thermodynamics or live life as if it were not the case the E=m*c^2.

So, why not choose a fiction in which moral facts are facts available to atheists and theists alike, allowing us to have intelligent discussions as to what those facts are, even if we disagree about their source?

Of course, a theist may object to some of the premises in this argument - particularly the premise that religion is mostly make-believe. However, I am not seeking arguments convincing to theists. I am seeking arguments that attempt to examine the world as it currently exists.

This is a world in which theists make-believe that atheists lack a moral foundation when they do not have to do so. This is a world in which the belief that atheists lack a foundation for moral beliefs is not merely a mistake. It is a mistake that serves a social and political purpose - to socially elevate those who make this mistake, and socially denigrate and diminish those whom it targets.

Some may claim that the reason the theists believe atheists lack a moral foundation has nothing to do with a desire to establish and maintain a social order in which they are held as socially and politically superior to the target group. They may claim that theists believe these things because they find it in scripture. But how did it get written into scripture to start with? And why is it that this version of the story is the one that got accepted?

We have little reason to doubt that it is because this interpretation not only feeds the ego of those who adopt it, but gives them an excuse to cast others onto the lower tier in the social order.

In America, it casts atheists as untrustworthy, as least likely to share American values, and as being likely to establish a Stalinesque totalitarian regime complete with programs to round up and execute all believers if it should come to pass that atheists get political power.

This type if attitude deserves more than, "Pardon me, but I do not think that reason and evidence properly supports the propositions you are asserting."

It deserves, "If your fraking religion grants you such a strong moral foundation, why didn't it teach you about the evil of promoting hatred and fear of others for the purpose of harvesting social and political power? Where is that in your moral code and why don't you start practicing it?"

Because this - in fact and in practice - is what the claim that non-believers lack a moral foundation is all about. It is about preaching hate and fear for the purpose of harvesting social and political power.

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