Another Atheist Gets It Wrong

Greta Christina of AlterNet has written a piece on myths (and truths) about atheism. Some of it is interesting, but most of it is kind of fluffy. That being said, Greta has regurgitated (with more than a little irony) a popular myth about the status of moral truths. Her words:

2: Atheists are immoral: without religion, there’s no basis for morality.

I could argue against this a hundred ways. I could argue that mature morality takes responsibility for its choices instead of blindly following someone else’s rules … an argument many theologians also make. I could point out that even believers are selective about their religious teachings, deciding for themselves which make sense and which are appalling or ridiculous. I could point out that religion isn’t a reliable foundation for morality … Exhibit A being gross ethical violations by religious leaders, from Jim Bakker to Osama Bin Laden. I could link to current research on the neurological/evolutionary basis of morality.

But mostly I want to say this: Look around you. This myth is patently untrue on the face of it. Atheists aren’t killing, stealing, raping, cheating, at any greater rate than believers. Look at countries in Europe, like France and England and Scandinavian countries, where nonbelievers make up half, or more, of the population. They’re not disintegrating into crime and chaos. They’re doing pretty well, and they treat each other pretty well, with a strong sense of social responsibility.

And look at individual atheists: Oliver Sacks. Carl Sagan. Dave Barry. Andy Rooney. Ira Glass. Milan Kundera. Tom Lehrer. Barry Manilow. Katharine Hepburn. Richard Feynman. Barbara Ehrenreich. Ted Williams. Atheist cops, soldiers, firefighters. The person down the street from you who mows the lawn for the old lady next door. Are all these people cesspools of selfishness and immorality?

Unless you indulge in circular reasoning — unless you think anyone with different religious beliefs is immoral by definition — you have to acknowledge that atheists are as moral as anybody else.

What should be obvious to anyone is that there are actually two different contentions in the title alone. Yes, some people may say that atheists are more immoral than Christians, but for the most part you won’t hear that being forwarded as an argument against atheism. It’s the second part of the sentence- without religion, there’s no basis for morality– that is actually interesting, and it ought to be noted that it is not the same thing as the claim that atheists are immoral. This is demonstrable, I think, in analogous philosophical situations. Consider….

TE: Epistemology flourishes best within a theistic context.

Does that mean if you are an atheist you are less likely to draw proper conclusions? I happen to think (TE) is correct, but I’m more likely to trust Richard Dawkins on scientific matters than, say, Ray Comfort.

So back to the original example, is there some kind of logical entailment from believing God grounds morality to acting morally? I certainly can’t think of a reason there would be. As long as atheists and theists share similar beliefs about the content of morality, there should be no reason to think that one can’t act morally even if one’s grounds for morality are insufficient.

But what if the content of morality differs significantly? Then I’m afraid Greta really hasn’t said anything interesting. Her myth would be something like “Christians and atheists disagree on the content of morality, and Christians believe atheists are immoral.” But surely that wouldn’t be surprising, and it certainly wouldn’t be the stuff of myth. So whichever way we are supposed to read the so-called “myth” we are left with the unfortunate propagation of new misunderstandings.

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8 Responses

  1. The fact that many theists think that morality is grounded in some god does not change the fact — even if they are correct — that they merely *think* this. It is their opinion — it is only their opinion *even if they turn out to be correct*.

    From that, the moral grounding of theists and atheists is equivalent — it is all based on consensus and nothing more.

    This, that moral conventions are based on consensus opinion, to me is *completely* obvious.

    Theists have no argument here at all.

  2. To add to my previous comment, even if the theists are correct, have the “right” god, etc. they have no way of knowing they are correct about their morality — they have no way of knowing their god is not deceiving them, for example.

    Even with an omniscient, omnibenevolent god who dictates the one true morality, humans have no way of KNOWING this one true morality while knowing THAT they know it and knowing that they are not mistaken. Which means that it’s all opinion.

    The people who believe in absolute morals do not have a way of knowing what those absolutes are, nor a way of knowing that they are actually absolute.

    So even if there ARE absolutes — there might as well not be, because we can’t know them.

  3. Scary,

    I don’t know what you mean by “merely think this”. They have arguments, even if you disagree with them, and I wonder if you also believe Greta is confused about the claims theists make about moral grounding.

    Since you are sure that moral obligations are nothing but social conventions, would you believe the Nazi version of obligations was the correct one if they had won the second World War? To be consistent, you would have to admit that. Of course, it would also mean if the majority of the world became convinced of an extreme Puritanism, it would be morally obligatory to burn atheists at the stake. Are you prepared to grant that?

  4. “, some people may say that atheists are more immoral than Christians, but for the most part you won’t hear that being forwarded as an argument against atheism.”

    Are you new to the net? This is one of the most common arguments.

    “It’s the second part of the sentence- without religion, there’s no basis for morality- that is actually interesting, and it ought to be noted that it is not the same thing as the claim that atheists are immoral.”

    There is a fatal flaw in the ointment here. Such a statement does not meet with the results of behavioral psychology experiments which show that there is no difference in how one deals with ethical dilemmas between religious and nonreligious subjects. Thus, the hypothesis that religion is a requirement for ethics should be discarded as it has been falsified through empirical means.

    “Since you are sure that moral obligations are nothing but social conventions, would you believe the Nazi version of obligations was the correct one if they had won the second World War? To be consistent, you would have to admit that. Of course, it would also mean if the majority of the world became convinced of an extreme Puritanism, it would be morally obligatory to burn atheists at the stake. Are you prepared to grant that?”

    History is rife with such examples. The ethical zeitgeist is constantly changing. Even the definition of murder was different 2000 years ago. The first commandment meant ‘don’t kill a fellow Jew’. Gentiles were fair game. We live in another zeitgeist which will be viewed by a future society through the lens of their own, just as you are doing to the Nazis and Puritans. The Nazi example, however, is bad. The Nazis were a very small group attempting to impose their own ideology on society as a whole. Heck, their anti-semetism is 100% Christian in origin – just read the edicts from the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 or Martin Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies. All Hitler did was order what religious authorities prescribed (and sometimes enacted – just look at how Judenberg got its name).

    The Puritans, on the other hand, were a self-selected group and was homogeneous in its belief system. As far as the Puritans were concerned, they acted ethically. We view their witch hunts through the lens of our ethical systems, not theirs, and we judge it unethical. I think you miss important nuances here.

    Would I allow the Puritans to do what they did in today’s world? Of course not. Do I excuse the Puritans? Of course not. But things are not as simple as you make them out to be.

  5. >There is a fatal flaw in the ointment here. Such a statement does not meet with the results of behavioral psychology experiments which show that there is no difference in how one deals with ethical dilemmas between religious and nonreligious subjects. Thus, the hypothesis that religion is a requirement for ethics should be discarded as it has been falsified through empirical means.<

    I don’t think I understand. Do you have a link to one of these falsifying experiments?

    The rest of what you said confuses what has happened throughout history with what ought to have happened. I realize the Nazi’s didn’t win; that’s not what I asked. I asked him to suppose the Nazie’s HAD won. Would it then be obligatory to murder Jews? Of course not. If your beliefs don’t at least allow you to say that no one ought to murder someone without justification, then it’s time to go shopping for some new beliefs.

  6. […] are still wrong We’ve been arguing about the myth of atheists immorality and moral arguments here, and I noticed that Vic Reppert just […]

  7. […] Ugh, take a smattering of pop-atheism and condense it into a single post, and you have this offering. Myth 2 is especially interesting as it appears to be one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of internet atheism. I’ve already tipped my hand here. […]

  8. When an atheist trys to say that the proposition “moral truths are grounded in God” is false because atheists are moral people, I use think of this analogy:

    Oxygenist: Hey dude- I believe in oxygen.

    A-oxygenist: What?! Are you retarded?! Theres no proof that oxygen even exists!

    Oxygenist: Are you familiar with the *Argument From Respiration*?

    (P1) If oxygen does not exist, respiration is impossible
    (P2) People respire
    (C) Therefore, oxygen exists

    A-oxygenist: Whoa man. Thats the WORST argument I’ve ever heard. Look all around you: theres MILLIONS of people just like me who don’t believe in oxygen and THEY all breathe just fine!

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