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Dec 20 2013

No Such Thing As A Good Atheist? Maybe You Are Right

What makes a person a good person?

It’s a question we have struggled with from a very early age. What makes you a “good person”?

Morality is a problem for the atheist and the theist alike. See the theist has to deal with an absolute moral code. Some shining code in the sky to aspire to and to follow rigidly come what may.

For some this requires immense mental acrobatics. Let’s look at the Jews on the Sabbath for example. For a long time possible due to their slaves or through hiring of non-Jewish servants in the latter part of history. More recently I have seen it in the defences of Slavery and Rape in the Bible by an apologetic who claimed that “slavery isn’t so bad if practiced according to the Biblical sense” and that “modern definitions of slavery are too conservative”. And indeed he had to ignore non-Jewish slavery laws in the Bible which were less “indebtured labour” and more “prisoners from other tribes”. This absolute shining code is the zenith of human morality and possessed by ancient people and so we must emulate them.

Or atleast the spirit of them.

And for the Atheist we must decide whether something is good or bad through rational thought. So we must wrestle with ideas and take responsibility for the formation of the code of morality that we value. This is hard, this means making decisions of importance knowing full well that we can make the wrong choice.

We are responsible for whether we are good or bad and our actions are judged by their effects.

You clicked on this post for one of two reasons. Either you’re hoping that I’m right or you know that I’m wrong. For those of you who are eager to pierce me with your wit and crush my pre-modern mind, allow me to issue a challenge. I contend that any response you make will only prove my case. Like encountering a hustler on the streets of Vegas, the deck is stacked, and the odds are not in your favor.

Yes, however by taking the self-deprecating route we merely assume that you are patronising us. Which frankly is foolish.

Before our love fest continues, allow me to define an important term, “worldview.” A worldview is your view of everything inside (and possibly outside) the universe: truth, religion, beauty, war, morality, Nickleback – everything. Everybody has one.

Sure why not.

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

Sure, it’s the basics of how our universe works.

Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.

Yes, the absolute truth of these things is that they are meaningless. Let’s take into perspective. Today I got my Christmas present. A new set of toys. A form of birth control called the “Norplant”. Its’ a plastic rod implanted “just” under the skin of  a young lady who does not want to have any children for the next 3 years. This gives out a hormone that makes her effectively “sterile” for that period of time allowing her to have sex without fear of pregnancy and choose to have a child when she chooses. To remove? A small nick is made under anasthesia and the inert plastic rod is removed. A fresh one can be put in place.

And to these women this little device means so many things. Independence, control over their own bodies and choice. To their children it means increased chance of survival.  To their husbands it means more income and less work. To the Indian economy it means lower unemployment rates and a faster transition from agriculture to post industrial.

And to you this means practically nothing.

And to the universe as a whole this little drama is not even 1% of it’s existence. We are not relevant to the universe at all. Had I NOT told you what these meant you would have still had precisely the same day. You would have lived your life in pretty much the same way. Now that you know this all that’s in your head is “there is a system of contraception that people use”.

All those things that the contraceptive implant means to the people who desperately need it don’t mean the same thing to you.

And yes your examples are tragic but they are tragic because we know about them. And what must I do for them? At the end of this article I will still go to sleep and sleep as soundly as I would have had I not heard about your “girl rescued from slavery”.

And the world will still turn. The world will not stop for these tragedies and triumphs.

The meaning we have in life, the value we have in life is not due to some grand agenda but because this is the life we have and the things we do have some value to each other. For the same reason that we are moved by the appropriate combination of sounds. It’s just vibrations after all but those vibrations mean something to us right now and so they are valuable.

The universe does not give things value but we do. It is we who have looked at the tragedies in life and empathised and tried to understand each other and give meaning too that suffering. We have sought to reduce said suffering.

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.

Or a system by which humanity can have shared ideals and values which allows us to get along with each other. It is just that our morality is no longer linked to ancient religious text and instead to modern philosophy where we have tried to explore the human condition.

We are not good. By the standards of all religion we are not good. I don’t believe in Jesus or Mohammed and this makes me instantly evil. I was not born Jewish. I don’t abide by the Caste system ruling me out of Hinduism. And I am sure I break Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and various other religious norms  too.

By the standards of the objective morality of ancient faiths and even modern ones such as Scientology, I am not a moral person because I don’t subscribe to a rigid moral code.

However we have based our morality on a simple idea. How would we like to be treated. We would like to be treated universally with equality. That all human beings are fundamentally equal bar minor biological changes. We wish to be treated the same as the others and not deny each other the right to do something.

No obviously this is a moral code that benefits society. That doesn’t mean that there are people who think that it should be a society where “you come first and screw all the rest”. We see this in some of the Libertarian and Conservative Economic ethos where the rewards are great but the chance of failure is high.

However society in general has declared what is moral and what is not to what benefits society as a whole.

Which is why  most old religion supported slavery or it’s equivalents (Caste System). Why? Because those societies were powered by slaves. They were the major economic grunt of many economies in the Ancient World. Despite being immoral acts the people defended them through every single means possible solely to keep their world “working”.

It is  why Religion was called the opiate of the masses. Because it was addictive and it dulled the pain of reality allowing you to suffer great pain and not notice the injustices being heaped on you solely because religion taught you to accept immorality. The slave deserved to get beaten. The gays deserved to get stoned.

The truth is that the objective morality of religion that we wish to follow today and that we hold intrinsic is not the morality enshrined in the book. Christians may quote the 10 Commandments but they are unlikely to be smashing down the doors to their local Mosque or Temple. Hindus may quote lines about caste but they seek to eliminate it. Muslims and indeed Christians and Jews ignore vast portions of their books that are simply not possible to adhere to today.

And they sometimes do adhere to them, with horrifying results.

Based on the nonnegotiable premises of atheism, these are the only logical conclusions. But I’ve never met an atheist who’s managed to live this way. All the atheists I’ve known personally and from afar live as if there is objective meaning and morality. How is this explained? In a Hail Mary-like attempt to reconcile the inescapability of objective morality and their assurances of atheism, two possible answers are launched.

Actually most people try and live lives without harming their fellow men. This is not a Christian ideal since prior to Christianity and Judaism plenty of civlisations existed that would be impossible without this concept. In fact it’s an evolutionary pressure to be moral and fit into your group.

Let’s look at an example of morality that is so different from our own that we cannot fathom why they would consider themselves moral.

The Aztecs sacrificed humans to the gods. Quite spectacularly and brutally. Many gods like Tlaloc demanded the sacrifice of infants. This to us is horrific. But to the Aztec, they believed they sacrificed to emulate their gods who sacrificed themselves to become the paradise they lived in. To them this was a good thing and it was a sacrifice for all the Aztec people.

To them  our total lack of respect for their gods would have seemed immoral. We would be selfish, unwilling to die to maintain the great cycle.

1. Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution. This is a two-pronged attempt at justifying moral claims. First, a sense of morality evolved to ensure human survival. Much like an eye or tooth, it is necessary for the human race to continue. If this were true, for any claim to be moral, it would have to serve the practical purpose of advancing the human race. So compassion for the dying would be immoral, and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral. Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children.

This just shows that you don’t understand how human society functions.

Compassion for the dying is a product of living in a social group. The bonds we form are real and mean something because evolutionary pressure doesn’t manifest itself in the society as if the society were a business contract. The bond is sealed with kinmanship and attraction and social modifiers.

And many societies thought it was a kindness to kill disabled or deformed children.

What life would they have growing up? They could hold neither spear nor shield? They could never hold sword nor bow? They can neither sale the seas nor plough the land. Their hands may not grasp the hammer nor weave cloth. They are doomed to poverty and a pauper’s grave and a lifetime of misery and suffering.

To the people of Sparta who’s entire civilisation was entrenched in warfare such a child would be better off dead since his society saw no future for him.

Many civilisations made such horrible choices to us. To them it was justified by a variety of things. I mean just look at the Old Testament. Levite law demands people with skin lesions be cast out as pariahs. How is that code any more moral than the code of Spartans?

People acted on their limited understanding of the world around them. The fear of disease drove people out of towns and to sacrifice to appease the gods who they thought visited vengeance since there was clearly no cause. It must be magic in nature after all.

And why if we look at the Early History mentioned in Christianity we would see that Jehovah exhorts his followers to murder an entire civilisation and keep the virgin women for themselves (As concubines = Sex Slaves). Which is divinely justified rape. We see this attitude as recently as the 1940s where the victims of the Empire of the Sun still demand justice for “it’s okay to rape these women” and the organised “comfort girls”. To the Japanese of the time they saw nothing wrong. Don’t look so smug, remember at this time period we had a major sporting event where an American Sporting Hero was treated BETTER by the epitome of racism (The Nazis) than by the country he represented because of the colour of his skin.

Our morality has progressed since then.

However, society began to realise that such a system would not work. See we would need all members of society to function and women are part of society. And universal breeding rights eliminated a lot of the arguments that are common to our ape cousins.

We have to realise something.

In most cultures across the world and indeed even in ours. Rape in marriage has generally not been treated with seriousness. In many cultures and places like India, rape in marriage is not “bad” and not even considered rape until quite recently. Marriage was not seen as a romantic gesture for most of history but unique access to a woman for the purpose of breeding rights. Over time the meaning of marriage has changed. Weddings were often carried out by force.

Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.

Except when appointed by a duly recognised god. It’s always wrong to kill children, exhort for the rape of virgins or indeed rape a woman except when the moral source does it? Then it’s a case of “the god of the Bible had good reasons to do so”.

Second, morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society’s borders or endure longer than a society’s existence.

Yes that’s generally been the case. Except we have a global society today and even there we have different ideas of what is moral and what isn’t.

A simple example is that the Americans consider that the mere act of doing anything socialist is the harbinger of true evil. Hence the dialogue behind Obamacare. That despite all evidence the American dialogue doesn’t grasp a superior system due to it’s “inherent evil”.

We see similar issues today within arguments for Gay Marriage and Women’s Contraception.

Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code but the ones who intend to change it. This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral — that is, until they become the majority and institute change. I suppose they then become moral, and traditionalists become immoral. But it’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.

So this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don’t affirm a national religion. It only provides a motivation for continuing the delusion of objective morality.

Except with a non-objective subjective code you are constantly refining it. You constantly challenge beliefs.

Let’s look  at one. The idea of “child labour”. This is a relatively recent western change. Children worked in many parts of Europe until quite recently. Under pressure from communists children were banned from work places and FORCED into schools. At the time people complained. People FOUGHT against the right to be educated. They used the argument that the families would starve if we keep children out of the factories.

The problem with this argument is that it forgets that it was not the morality of the gods of Abraham that made it wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill  those who don’t affirm a religion. In fact the gods of Abraham (whether you chose to call him Allah or Jehovah) seem to have no qualms about murder and rape. Oh it may call it something else but  a duck’s a duck  even if you call it a flying quacking bird.

These things were banned and became taboo with progress. Progress made by human morality rather than the absolute word of god? The moral code of the BIble and indeed the Torah and Koran are allegedly unchanged and so these are relatively new changes.

We identify the universal right to life because we as humans wish that we all have such a right to life. We identify equality because we know that skin colour and gender roles are social constructs and so enforcing them is pointless. We want gay marriage to be legalised because we cannot think of any rational reason that it should not.

That’s the thing. We can explain why rape is bad. If we take the rape of any human being and put it as a subjective experience we would get a statistical trend. We can do this by age group, we can do this by ethnicity, culture and gender. And in all of this we get an negative experience. This is without looking at the  other effects. The robbing of a person’s dignity and bodily autonomy which we consider a universal right as we wish that our bodily autonomy is not lost unless in an emergency situation (eg. Emergency Medicine). A lot of what our morality is based on is “let us think how we would feel in that position” and through empathy.

And through hard work. The rights of women were fought AGAINST religious conservatives. The moral doctrine that a woman’s body is her own has been fought against the actions of the Bible. The idea of a woman being equal to a man is enforced by the Bible and indeed every major religious book.

2. Morality is logical. Atheists who take this route start in a position of checkmate without realizing it. First, the temptation is to pervert this conversation into a debate about whether atheists can be moral. Of course they can. That is not the question. The question is how we make sense of moral claims if we play by the rules that atheism demands.

Morality may be logical, but logic does not equate to morality. The only way to make a logical moral argument is to presuppose morality and meaning to start with. Try making a logical argument that slavery is wrong without presupposing morality. It is impossible. A woman wrote to me with her attempt at doing just that. Her claim was that slavery is logically wrong because it diminishes other human beings. The problem is that that argument presupposes human dignity. In the strict framework of atheism outlined above, what reason is there to ever assume human dignity?

It’s simple. If I placed you under a slave condition you  would not appreciate it. The victims of slavery are universally unhappy. To be property to work and do as your master sees fit does not create happiness in the individual being enslaved. This is a subjective belief but if we observe the universal treatment of said slaves and their opinions on such one finds that slaves generally dislike their enslavers.

This alone makes it an evil in the eyes of the slave. Now the master may use a variety of methods to justify such including religion. After all does it say anywhere in the Bible that slavery is bad?

The idea of human dignity is a philosophical argument and is born out of the notion that all humans have agency. And they have wants and dreams and likes and dislikes. And that these humans should be free to explore these at their leisure without interference. That’s the ideal that I and indeed most people would like to live in, so we made the right to pursue this ideal central to our humanity and so argue that all humans have dignity due to this agency and that impinging on it is the denial of the agency that we can empirically observe.

The act of slavery occludes the agency of a human. So does poverty which is why we consider poverty an evil too. But poverty is an evil of the economic variety and impersonal while slavery is a direct affront to the agency of a human being.

No where is this agency explored in any religious text.

Presupposition is not a crime. After all the Bible is one big presupposition. It entirely works on the presupposition that “A God Must Exist Called Jehovah Not Vishnu”. Why must we accept that gigantic presupposition but not the smaller ones about the dignity of man due to the agency inherent in us and how understanding of how we are effectively the same except for culture has lead to a greater understanding of what it means to be human. The difference between us is what we presuppose. You pressuppose the existence of a god who’s moral dictim is the Zenith of Morality. I pressuppose human agency which validates our dignity and entitles us by the wishes of all humans to live our lives to what we are capable of doing. Except I do so by my observations of real human behaviour rather than by reading of scripture.

All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views. The strict framework of atheism does not allow for those starting points. So any person arguing for 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.

Well yes. If you were suffering, unhappy and had your agency curtailed you would be “rather miffed” and we can empathise with people being rather miffed. That’s a large part of why people work in charity and why people try and help each other.

Our rule is based on an empathic connection where we can understand the suffering of each other or at least TRY to understand the suffering of each other. When those in power asked themselves the question “Do We Want To Live Like A Slave” the answer they got when they thought “honestly” was “no”.

Now you may say that empathy isn’t real but frankly it’s inbuilt into us as a social ape.

Conclusion

Intelligent people ask serious questions. Serious questions deserve serious answers. There are few questions more serious than the one I’m asking. How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.

This is hardly intelligent. This is just someone (and I have seen this argument before) claiming that atheists cannot presuppose human dignity through the idea of agency and indeed that a society created on empathic understanding is somehow inferior to a society created by 2000 year old bronze age shepherds.

A more logical reason for the existence of objective morality is that it’s a subjective moral code enforced by an objective source. In the same way that a child’s moral code is objective despite it being a subjective source. Eat your Vegetables. The child does not know about the background but hears Eat Your Vegetables as a booming order to be disobeyed at peril. To the child a balanced diet is beyond comprehension in the same way that a society where few people read and most relied on a small base of educated men (usually) to tell them what to do. To give gravitas and to give weight to such a statement one had to utilise religion to explain certain things.

 We just get it from a “magical” Dad figure. We don’t want the 5 year old asking us questions so we often exasperatedly say “Do As I say! OR some mythological creature will do something terrible to you if you do not”.

Which is what role god has in this argument. Why must we stone the GLBT? Well remember Stephen? Remember how he broke out in boils and ran a fever until he died in pain? Yeah if you don’t stone the GLBT god will give you “Not stoning the GLBT boils”. Now pick up that rock and chuck it at Elton John.

We are asking the wrong question here. Why are we looking at subjective moral codes rather than looking at why an objective code and indeed one so preposterously immoral exists in the first place.

One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself — becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question. Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true.

Not really. There may be a true objective moral code that we work towards. That one day we will live in a society with absolutely no bias or bigotry and of true equal opportunity. We have long since exceeded the moral code of the gods of the biggest religions, and we have more work to do still.

If your worldview can’t makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it’s not worth your allegiance. This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. Whatever you believe. You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.

Which is no reason to believe in the bogeyman.

In Hinduism even the gods are subject to moral decisions. Good and Bad are irrelevant terms because good and bad are a perspective. The hamburger is good but not if you are the cow. Whether an action is moral or not is judged by it’s effects. By what it does and how it changes the world.

Which is what Hinduism understood centuries ago that Christians do not.

A moral code that is absolute cannot work in a reality that is not. Where a moral code of black and white cannot deal with the greys. Where an objective code cannot defend it’s own objectivity with a rational discussion.

Let’s take the GLBT again as an example. The difference between us and them is  that we can discuss why homophobia is bad and realise that it’s pointless to hate the GLBT.

The objective morality states that we shouldn’t ask any questions because we clearly aren’t throwing enough rocks if we have time to ask such silly questions of the clearly moral god lest you end up like Stephen.

The philosophical argument that we must have a hard and fast moral code is fine but it doesn’t indicate that a god exists and neither is that god Jehovah or Allah or Shiva.

We may not be moral as atheists but we understand we are not moral. We STRIVE to be moral we struggle with it every single day. And that makes us more likely to make a moral choice. Because we have to look at how our choices and actions and decide on our course of action based on what we think the effect of our actions will have.

We cannot simply act on an objective moral code and go home thinking we have done good when what we have done is often deeply immoral because it has harmed others.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Theistic morality also rests on an illogical basis. If things are good or bad just because god/the gods say they are good or bad then goodness or badness are not objective but are merely matters of opinion. If god or the gods is/are absolutely good, there is a separate definition of goodness independent of the gods and there is no need to base human morality on what they say or do.

  2. 2
    Al Dente

    Pastor Henderson bases his morality on the dictates of a sadistic, narcissistic bully with the emotional maturity of a spoiled six year old. His source of morality kills people just because he can. Sorry, Pastor, but my subjective morality is as “good” as yours which demands obedience to arbitrary rules ordered by your thuggish god.

  3. 3
    Jont Musiteur

    Behavioural studies at, among other places, the Department of Anthropology at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, on infants aged less than 2 and not yet able to talk have demonstrated two things (among others):

    Most participants defend learned arbitrary rules as much as knowledge from observation, and will instinctively react (often vehemently) against things that are perceived as “wrong” or “against the rules” as much as against things that are perceived as factually incorrect.
    Most participants behave altruistically, that is, they instinctively help others and share without immediate promise of personal gain.

    This is in contrast to other primates of equivalent learning and intellect, which show no adherence to abstract rules or altruism without promise of personal gain. These are not controversial findings (at least not controversial in the sense that quantum mechanics is not controversial), and are huge qualitative differences between us and our ancestors.

    This gets complicated in later learning, obviously, but humans are either born with a sense of “morality” (for want of a better word), or show this trait before they are able to articulate it in any way.

    That would mean that atheists, far from being free of some archaic rigid moral system imposed by religion, are as subject to living by abstract rules as other humans. Religions might indoctrinate in extreme cases, but in most cases they provide a ready-made framework that fulfils a need. To an extent, that’s probably even a good thing, but also an inevitable thing – with or without religion, some form of social code (aka morals) can and will dominate because it’s what humans do. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s genetic, instinctive, intuitive or somehow nurtured in ways that we don’t yet understand. Within the sphere of humanity, that’s obviously a Good Thing; on the greater scheme of things, it’s obviously as irrelevant as the air pressure on Pluto. But since we have little influence on the Grand Scheme of Things and the Grand Scheme of Things has little influence on daily life other than it’s just kind of there, the relevance lies in our immediate interactions with one another – where the prescribed social code, whatever it might be, whoever invented it and for whatever reason, does matter.

  4. 4
    government auctions

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