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Apr 28 2011

Atheism’s morality

In his regular New York Times column, David Brooks trots out his usual banalities, this time about how without god we cannot have a timeless morality.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.

How can people write such nonsense? Does he really think that how we understand what the Bible says about morality has not changed from Biblical times?

The book The Christian Delusion edited by John W. Loftus has a chapter titled Yahweh is a Moral Monster by Hector Avalos that lists the horrendous morality that is found in the Bible. (The essay is largely a refutation of a defense of god offered by Christian apologist Paul Copan in an essay titled Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics that can be read here. )

In his chapter, Avalos ends (p. 232) with a section titled Atheism’s Morality that is worth quoting at length:

Copan fundamentally misunderstands the New Atheism insofar as he believes that it cannot provide a sound moral ground for its judgments. For a Christian apologist to think he or she has triumphed by pointing out the moral relativism of the New Atheism is to miss the entire point. As an atheist, I don’t deny that I am a moral relativist. Rather, my aim is to expose the fact that Christians are also moral relativists. Indeed, when it comes to ethics, there are only two types of people in this world:

1. Those who admit they are moral relativists; and
2. Those who do not admit they are moral relativists.

Copan fails because he cannot admit that he is a moral relativist, and he thinks that God will solve the problem of moral relativism. But having a God in a moral system only creates a tautology. All we end up saying is: “X is bad because X is bad.” Thus, if we say that we believe in God, and he says idolatry is evil, then that is a tautology: “God says idolatry is bad and so idolatry is bad because God says it is bad.” Or we end up using this tautology: “Whatever God says is good because whatever God says is good.”

As Kai Nielsen deftly argues, human beings are always the ultimate judges of morality even if we believe in God. After all, the very judgment that God is good is a human judgment. The judgment that what God commands is good is also a human judgment. So Christians are not doing anything different except mystifying and complicating morality. Christians are simply projecting what they call “good” onto a supernatural being. They offer us no evidence that their notion of good comes from outside of themselves [My italics]. And that is where the danger lies. Basing a moral system on unverifiable supernatural beings only creates more violence and endangers our species. I have already discussed this at length in my book, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

Copan cites Dinesh D’Souza who repeats the oft-cited anecdote that atheists have killed more people than religionists. Again, this is based on the false idea that Nazis were atheistic Darwinists, and that Stalinist genocide was due to atheism rather than to forced collectivism (something I discuss in detail in chapter 14 of this book). Speaking only for myself here, I can say that atheism offers a much better way to construct moral rules. We can construct them on the basis of verifiable common interests, known causes, and known consequences. There is an ironclad difference between secular and faith-based morality, and we can illustrate it very simply with these propositions:

A. I have to kill person X because Allah said so.
B. I have to kill person X because he is pointing a gun at me.

In case A, we commit violence on the basis of unverifiable premises. In case B, we might commit violence on the basis of verifiable premises (I can verify a gun exists, and that it is pointed at me). If I am going to kill or be killed, I want it to be for a reason that I can verify to be true. If the word “moral” describes the set of practices that accord with our values, and if our highest value is life, then it is always immoral to trade real human lives for something that does not exist or cannot be verified to exist.

What does not exist has no value relative to what does exist. What cannot be proven to exist should never be placed above what does exist. If we value life, then you should never trade something that exists, especially life, for something that does not exist or cannot be proven to exist. That is why it would always be immoral to ever take a life based on faith claims. It is that simple.

Avalos captures quite succinctly my views on this topic. I am a moral relativist because I simply cannot see how a moral framework can be constructed that is independent of human input and judgments. The reason that Brooks thinks the rules are timeless is because a human being told him that one particular holy book’s rules (out of the many holy books with their own rules) are given by a god and are thus timeless. He chose (or was indoctrinated) to believe that claim. How is that not a product of human judgment?

If a god were to suddenly appear to me, even then I would not unhesitatingly accept those moral commands. If this god said, for example, that I should murder my children (as the Bible says he told Abraham to do with his son Isaac) or indeed that I should murder anyone at all, I simply would not do it and I am confident that these days most people would do the same. None but the most fanatical god believers would comply and we would consider such people to be either insane or moral monsters.

If a god issued commands that we now consider immoral, he/she/it would face a revolt on his hands because all thinking people are, in the end, moral relativists and reject moral commands that are not congruent with their own moral sensibilities or based on agreed-upon humane principles.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    random ntrygg

    Atheism is only a rejection of religious beleif.

    it is not a replacement and as such, does not provide a guide for morality

    atheism, being nothing more than a rejection of claims, then leaves the non-beleiver in the position of Do It Yourself morality.

    What is moral to you should come from you – not from anything external – and certainly nothing external that you cannot directly draw upon.

    You can read your country’s laws and understand them – but religious “laws” require a middle man – that neccessary adds a lot of room for abuse and interpretation.

    So how exactly is that a basis for timeless morals?

  2. 2
    Mike Haubrich

    I wonder what a “timeless morality” would be, since morality is a human invention.

    Can I Flog my Blog here, Mano?

    Here is a piece
    I wrote in response to William Lane Craig’s piece at Unreasonable Faith.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Mike,

    Thanks! That is a wonderful response to Craig. I will comment on it later.

  4. 4
    Scott

    “Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment.”

    I don’t disagree with that idea, but I disagree with the Brooks’ idea of the source. Morality doesn’t have to come from a religious source, or, better stated, the _perception_ of a religious source. Timeless rules could include moral ideas that have evolved with us, like nurturing our young or working together for the common good.

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