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.
Filed under: Atheism | Tagged: Atheism, morality | 8 Comments »