That atheists can be virtuous is so obvious that it is not something that needs to be stated. But we know that it was not always thought so, especially in early modern times. And even now, we often hear the specious argument being advanced that since god is the source of moral values, an atheist cannot be expected to have any. I won’t even bother to respond to that silly argument. But I came across this interesting article by Michael Hickson, a professor of philosophy, who describes the evolution of attitudes towards atheists.
For centuries in the West, the idea of a morally good atheist struck people as contradictory. Moral goodness was understood primarily in terms of possessing a good conscience, and good conscience was understood in terms of Christian theology. Being a good person meant hearing and intentionally following God’s voice (conscience). Since an atheist cannot knowingly recognise the voice of God, he is deaf to God’s moral commands, fundamentally and essentially lawless and immoral. But today, it is widely – if not completely – understood that an atheist can indeed be morally good.
Hickson says that a Huguenot philosopher and historian Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) whom I had not heard of before was instrumental in changing that belief. In his book Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet (1682), Bayle began with an observation that would be highly controversial for that time.
It is no stranger for an atheist to live virtuously than it is strange for a Christian to live criminally. We see the latter sort of monster all the time, so why should we think the former is impossible?
Bayle argued people do not act on the basis of their principles or theories. They are instead motivated by passions and that this is the great equalizer. “Pride, self-love, the desire for honour, the pursuit of a good reputation, the fear of punishment, and a thousand customs picked up in one’s family and country, are far more effective springs of action than any theoretical beliefs about a self-created being called God, or the First Cause argument.”
Bayle’s pessimism reaches its pinnacle in a thought experiment involving a visit from an alien species. Bayle claims that it would take these aliens less than 15 days to conclude that people do not conduct themselves according to the lights of conscience. In other words, very few people in the world are, properly speaking, morally good. So atheists are merely no worse than religious believers, and on the surface they might even appear morally superior. While this is less ambitious than claiming that atheists can be completely virtuous, it is still a milestone in the history of secularism.
It is the issue of conscience that is central to how Christians view atheists. Christians believe that it is the voice of their god speaking to them. If so, where does the atheist conscience come from? Bayle argues that thinking that conscience requires a god is as unfounded as assuming that all truths emanate from god, and he appeals to the universality of mathematical truth as an argument against assuming tat all truths must have divine origin.
Christians believe that God is the source of all truth, while atheists do not. However, metaphysical disagreements over the source of the truth of triangle theorems make no difference when it comes to proving triangle theorems. Christians and atheists all come to the conclusion that the sum of the angles inside every triangle is equal to two right angles. For the purposes of mathematics, theological views are irrelevant. Similarly for morality: whether one believes that the nature of justice is grounded in the nature of God or in the nature of a godless Nature makes no difference. Everyone agrees that justice requires that we keep our promises and return items that we have borrowed.
Bayle argues that the universality of moral truths argue similarly against the proposition that they need a divine impetus.
At bottom, these Christian views do not differ from what atheists believe about the foundation of morality. They believe that the natures of justice, kindness, generosity, courage, prudence and so on are grounded in the nature of the Universe. They are brute objective facts that everyone recognises by means of conscience. The only difference between Christians and atheists is the kind of ‘nature’ in which moral truths inhere: Christians say it is a divine nature, while atheists say it is a physical nature. Bayle imagines critics objecting: how can moral truths arise from a merely physical nature? This is indeed a great mystery – but Christians are the first to declare that God’s nature is infinitely more mysterious than any physical nature, so they are in no better position to clarify the mysterious origins of morality!
Hickson says that Bayle’s ideas contributed to the secularization of ethics. Once that happened, believing in a god became just one option among many and led to increased secularization as a whole.