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Is atheism morally bankrupt - a critical response

18 June 2013, 15:40

I begin by providing quotations from the original article, in quotation marks, and thereafter giving my comments on those particular passages. Below I give a more general critique of the article, concluding that it holds no water and that the author has made a series of intellectual errors rendering his claims incorrect or senseless. Perhaps I will write further on the subject of morality in future articles. In this present article I make no positive claims about what I think morality is – I merely take on board the assumptions which the author has made. The original article, to which this is a response, can be found here:

“The atheist "realization" that "God does not exist" should be kept in silent horror by atheists in secret "enlightened clubs". Why spread the news that could lead mankind on a horrific road of moral relativism?”

Supposing that moral relativism were true, the fact that some of us find its implications horrific is perfectly consistent with the proposition that our horror has no objective moral reality. If moral relativism is true, the fact that we do not like it would not be a case against moral relativism, but rather would be consistent with it. Further, that we find its implications unappealing (as a subjective truth about our feelings on the matter) can carry no objective normative force, and thus cannot rationally imply that we ought to keep ‘atheism’ silent.

“However, to Know or Believe that something is right or wrong is quite different from being able (this is critical) to Justify that such a thing is right or wrong.  (Think about how critical it is to assert Justifications for “objective moral values” when reading the rest of this article).”

The conflation of ‘knowledge’ with ‘belief’ is problematic. To ‘know’ some proposition is, whatever else, to have justification for it. To ‘believe’ some proposition is simply to take it that some proposition is true, where it might, or might not, in fact, be true. The difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’, in part, is justification. So, it’s no doubt, I think, that many people have beliefs about what is good. Their beliefs, of course, differ radically much of the time – depending on culture, context, history, era, etc – this makes descriptive moral relativism an anthropological datum: one which cannot be ignored. It made perfect intuitive sense, to many people, to treat women as inferior to men. It makes much less sense to act like this today. While descriptive moral relativism is a fact, what will matter in normative theory is whether or not we have grounds to say that some people (some beliefs, some propositions) are wrong.

“We all know Bundy is wrong.  But why is he wrong though?  With what moral argument can we respond to Bundy?”

Actually, many of us believe that he is wrong, but we do not ‘know’ that he is wrong – if we did we would already have justification, and thus the second question would be superfluous. Nevertheless it is important to ask how one might know any moral truths, and how one might justify any moral claims.

“But this kind of Nietzschean “might makes right” [personal moral relativism] ethic has horrific consequences, and one need only be reminded of the Nazi reign of terror to see it in full bloom.”

This assertion simply begs the question against the personal moral relativist. If personal moral relativism is true, there are no (real) horrific consequences to the holocaust – it is (only) that you didn’t like it, or that it upset you.

 “As C. S. Lewis argued so well, there must be a universal moral law, or else moral disagreements would make no sense.”

Perhaps the quotation is taken out of context, but as it stands in its current use it represent a point which is badly argued for. Suppose that morality is fictional – a kind of illusion. Suppose, also, that Romeo Montague is a fictional person (to believe he really exists is to have a kind of delusion). There are, indeed, many disagreements about the nature of Romeo, about his intentions, his worth in the overall narrative, and so on.

It is absurd to say that these disagreements (with which literary critics deal on a professional basis) do not make sense if Romeo is merely fictional – and that merely because there are disagreements about Romeo implies that Romeo is real. No, the key is to realize that in discussing Romeo we are discussing a piece of fiction. Once that is accepted, and the image is revealed as an illusion, than all controversy is dissolved. Similarly, (on the assumption that morality is fictional), the key is to realize that ‘moral disagreements’ are not about real things. They are analogous to debates about fictional entities – and there is nothing incoherent about that idea. That we have disagreements, feelings, beliefs about fictional entities does not imply that they are real – if anything it would imply that we haven’t fully appreciated their unreality.

“The theist asserts that the Universal Moral Law Giver must be God - who or what else could it be?”

There are numerous problems with this assertion. For one, it is question begging to suppose that there must be a law ‘giver’, which implies that the generator of morality ought to be a ‘person’ of sorts. Perhaps morality exists as a platonic form which, by the use of strange form-like powers, causes the existence of real duties, obligations and rights on people. Or perhaps morality is just a very-special-thing, which exists in a metaphysical realm and which, by some strange inexplicable power, affects the physical world. These options, absurd as they are, are not at all ruled out – what is required, according to the argument, is some objective grounding for the reality of morals, and not in particular a metaphysical person who grounds them.

On the assumption that God is the grounding for morality, there are difficult questions regarding God properties. It is not conceptually possible that God is both a Good person and the generator of Goodness itself. Given the suffering which we see in the world, if that is any indication of the properties of God, on the assumption that God exists, it seems likely that God is not a perfectly Good person. The God who must serve as the grounding for morality is a mechanism which produces (somehow) Goodness, and the possibility of evil. This God is not compatible with the God conceived of in monotheisms (not on any ordinary reading, at least). There are further reasons (here: why the Christian God, in particular, is logically incompatible with the God deduced from ‘moral arguments’. Of course, for someone wishing to defend Christianity, this is highly problematic.

“The atheists assert there is no God, therefore "Objective Moral Laws”, (even if he believes in them) cannot exist for the atheist. It therefore follows that the atheistic outlook is a morally bankrupt one.  It is a horrific anti-moral outlook.”

According to the argument, actually, if there is no God, then there are no objective moral laws at all, for anyone. The atheistic outlook, according to this argument, is not horrific in any real sense – if atheism is true, and if it follows that there is no moral value, then nothing is ‘horrific’ in any normatively interesting sense. All that it can mean to say that something is ‘horrific’ is to say that you strongly dislike it, but nothing more than that. Again, internal disgust is consistent with the most extreme moral relativism; it is not an argument against it.

“Should atheism become a world-wide phenomenon, it would leave nothing in the way of preventing future Ted Bundys, Mao Zedongs, Joseph Stalins, Vladimir Lenins, and Pol Pots.  Neither would they be able to say anything against the crusades, Christian witch hunts, suicide bombers or other religious atrocities. Theists and atheists alike can therefore be thankful for the current world wide decline in atheism!”

Again, unless this is intended to fallaciously beg the question, this is nothing more than a descriptive claim – it has no normative force whatsoever. If atheism is true, according to this argument, there is no reason to condemn anyone, because there are no immoral or moral things – and this fact also has no moral status (it is not, itself, good or bad, it is merely descriptive). There is no reason to be “thankful” that atheism is on a decline – if atheism is true. To be thankful, I suppose, is merely to reveal that the thankful-person dislikes what he understands as certain crimes – he didn’t like Bundy, Stalin, or the Crusades – and he wants to say something about it, because he is very upset. This is, again, perfectly consistent with the total unreality of moral value.

“The "atheist truth" should therefore be kept a secret.”

This proposition, which is the conclusion of the article, simply does not follow from the ‘arguments’ which came before it. If atheism is true, there is no moral value, and some kind of relativism must be true (so the argument goes). This entails that there is nothing ‘really’ wrong with a variety of things which we commonly believe to be ‘really’ wrong. The implications of atheism have no moral force whatsoever; they are mere descriptions of fact. It cannot follow, from these descriptive claims, that there is something we ‘therefore should do’. No normative conclusions can be drawn from those descriptive implications of atheism – least not the conclusions which would vindicate the subjective likes and dislikes of the author.

General Remarks

The author has botched what is a rather common argument for the existence of God. What he should have said was simply that atheists who are also naturalists do not have ground to stand on from which to launch moral arguments against religion.

Of course, not all atheists are naturalists, and there is nothing about atheism which entails naturalism. That is, when atheism is the absence of a belief in God, or the conviction that there is no God, that is a logically separate claim to the claim that there are no supernatural entities (naturalism) at all. Nothing prevents an atheist from being a Kantian objectivist or a platonic realist about moral value.

No doubt, many atheists do not readily identify as Platonists or Kantians – but their language betrays inclinations towards those philosophies (speaking about the value of humans, the value of happiness, human rights, and so on). There is nothing, in principle, amiss when an atheist launches a moral criticism against religion.

The author (it seems) mistakenly believes that all atheistic critiques are moral critiques: this is not the case. Even if an atheist could never consistently speak about good and evil he can still speak about rationality and truth. Atheism might be the result of believing that religions are not, or probably not, true, irrespective of their moral persuasiveness.

There is, of course, no shortage of purely intellectual problems with religion, so I won’t bother to recount them here. But there is, also, then nothing amiss with an atheist criticising religion. He needn’t even think there is anything moral, or immoral, about doing so, but might simply be concerned with spreading information which he thinks is correct.

The author might have a point in saying that a naturalist (who thinks that nothing supernatural is real) cannot raise any moral objections to religion. However, if the naturalist is correct, then religion is ruled out altogether, irrespective of any moral considerations, because religion posits supernatural entities which are incompatible with naturalism, and which the naturalist thinks cannot be real. The naturalist does not need the capacity to speak in moral terms in order to raise a case against the belief in religion.

The author began his misguided essay as follows, “if one fully realizes the implications then the New Atheist movement has no motivation of its existence, no purpose, no reason to spread its unbelief”. This is to make an error by identifying what is right and good with what is reasonable or rational. The author, in particular, must believe that they are totally separate phenomena: that morality cannot be generated by pure reason, but, rather, requires the magic of a God. Morality, we might suppose, is separate from rationality. The naturalist can still have rational reasons for objecting to religious belief – he needn’t think there is anything good, or noble, about his critique, other than that what he says is true, and there is nothing which obliges him not to spread the truth.

The author has needlessly complicated the argument by obscuring the main premises. The author claims that if there is no God, then there are no objective moral values. But he sincerely believes that there are objective moral values. So, there must be a God. This argument is never made explicitly in the actual article, it hides between the lines, obscured by the various assumptions the author has made.

The case for the first premise is somewhat coherent. Unfortunately, I suspect, it is plagiarized from various religious apologists who consistently and wrongly identify atheism with naturalism. Putting that aside, at least there are some strong reasons to suppose that morality, as traditionally conceived, has a problematic and tendentious place in a naturalistic metaphysic.

The crucial premise, over which little or no energy is spent, is the second premise which asserts that there really are such things as moral values. The author does little more, here, than to assume his readership largely shares his own personal biases, or that his personal biases are so general as to engender little, or no, resistance. He relies on our intuitions regarding moral matters – we all know, in our hearts, that Ted Bundy was immoral. There are a few things which can be said here.

For one, we can admit that to hold a belief (substantiated or not, correct or not) is to hold a proposition which the holder takes to be true. Everyone who has any moral beliefs believes that they are true, and that beliefs to the contrary are false. So, to argue from the premise that we all ‘apprehend morality on our hearts’ does none of the work which it needs to. What would be quite incredible is if, ‘in our hearts’, we all came to the same moral conclusions – this kind of evidence would serve the case of the theist.

Unfortunately, as is the case most of the time, the real evidence doesn’t help the religious believer. I noted earlier that (descriptive) cultural/moral relativism is, at least, an anthropological fact. People have vastly different beliefs regarding what is moral. On the surface, it seems to be a more sensible explanation that what is regarded as moral is a product of culture, rather than the product of a unified, omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Perhaps, under closer scrutiny, this ‘surface truth’ will lose its lustre: but it is this very scrutiny which this kind of issue requires, and it is exactly this that the author has failed to do.

The author spends no time arguing that his particular moral biases are the correct ones, and relies solely on the agreement of his readership. Suppose he had spoken, instead, about the value of homosexual love, or the equality between races (or, the unreality of ‘race’ altogether), the problem of Israel, or the problem of Palestine, stem-cell research, abortion, the role of women in society, the rights of children to choose their religion, or any other moral problem over which we have no consensus. Were he to have done this, his case would seem even worse than it already is.

Given that the author does not defend his particular moral biases, his argument can be summed up as follows. “I really don’t like certain implications of naturalism (which I have conflated for the sake of convenience with atheism). I know many of you also dislike these implications. It looks like we really agree on these matters, so our belief can’t be illusory. Therefore, there must be a God. And, as well, atheism should be kept private.”

Truth, of course, is not a matter of consensus – although the author believes it is. Even if everyone believed a single moral truth, it would not be evidence that it was actually true. Were everyone to believe that women were inferior to men, the mere belief would not cause it to be true. The reality of morals needs justification and the justification cannot be settled by a majority vote. Nor can it be settled by the repetition of the phrase “moral law giver”.

The author has utterly failed to make his case. His argument can be discarded as entirely beside the point. He is correct, in a sense, that morality is a difficult phenomenon to talk about. There is no clear victor in the meta-ethical debate. And some kind of moral nihilism does seem to rear its head when we consider the facts of the world. To deal with these problems (if they are problems) requires more than the inaccurate recital of old philosophical puzzles.

There is, as is often the case, much more which can be said. There is, I think, a problem regarding the reconciliation of our common-sense view of morality (largely influenced by religion and religious metaphysics), and the scientific image of the world. So far as we can tell, there is no immaterial soul and no afterlife: there is, therefore, no final judgment where ‘cosmic justice’ will emerge. Human beings, and life in general, is a cosmic accident – there is no reason for it being here. Everything (on this planet) will eventually die, and all the products of culture, and even all of science, will be turned to dust. These are (perhaps slightly embellished) the facts of the matter, and they do present a problem for religion – not only its conception of the genesis of the universe, or life, but also (so I suspect) of its conception of ‘morality’.

The solution is to attempt to reconcile these two images (common sense, and scientific). The reconciliation is likely to involve the rethinking of a great many things (such as, what it means for something to be valuable, what it means for someone’s life to have a purpose, what logic normative statements rely on, what facts vindicate or falsify particular normative statements, etc.). This project cannot make progress by the fearful retreat to old, and false, religious theories. The religious anti-progressives, and their sympathizers, make a tempting case: and it is tempting, in part, I think, because there are not many viable scientific alternatives. The remedy for this is not to ignore their questions, nor is it to obscure the questions by given bad answers. The remedy, I suspect, will involve very critical thinking, on very tough matters, which is likely to produce counter intuitive results. 

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