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Atheism and Morality

Atheism and Morality

Why do so many atheists make moral proclamations?

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Though expecting to be rather irked by it, I was surprised to find myself almost enjoying (and agreeing) with a lot of what Sam Harris had to say in his TED Talk entitled "Science can Answer Moral Questions." His thinking regarding the balance that needs to be struck between the Taliban's "cloth prison" approach to women's bodies and the over the top exhibitionism of the average corner kiosk seems right on the money to me. I would also agree with him that the statutes of political correctness that prevent us from critiquing these matters do indeed need to be challenged. And though it was not part of his talk, I was pleased to learn that he has been an ardent supporter of the state of Israel and tough critic of its opponents. So far so good.

What I do not yet understand is why he (or any atheist for that matter) makes so many moral proclamations. The average atheist makes certain basic assumptions about reality: that we all exist as a result of blind and purposeless happenstance, that free will is illusory, that there is no conscious "self" and that there is no objective right or wrong. As Dr. Will Provine has said, "[as an atheist] you give up hope that there is an imminent morality ... you can't hope for there being any free will... [and there is] no ultimate foundation for ethics."

Related Article: Morality: Who Needs God?

If that's the case, what precisely is Sam Harris doing judging the Taliban or anybody else? The case he tries to make is that morality is somehow scientifically built into reality and when done correctly results in what he calls "human thriving." But surely the objective listener must recognize that the notion of "thriving" itself is utterly subjective. The Taliban might very well believe that they are the pinnacle of human civilization and there has never been any shortage of cultures whose depravities were considered (by them) to be perfectly wonderful things to do. Are we really arrogant enough to suggest that we're so different?

What difference could it possibly make what one random collection of electrons does to another?

Either way, why exactly does he care? What difference could it possibly make what one random collection of electrons does to another? He harbors some subjective notion that things ought not be done that way? Well tough darts. It boils down to his meaningless assertion vs. their equally meaningless one. Furthermore, if there is no such thing as free will, then what sense does it make to blame anyone for any action whatsoever? "I felt like it" or "I couldn't help myself" should be considered perfectly reasonable defenses to any "wrong-doing." In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one's self whatever one's heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim's purse -- as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes?

To live a "moral" life, the atheist must choose to live a willful illusion as the true nature of the world contains, as Dawkins suggests, "no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day. Freud summed this up well when he said, "the moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence."

In a 2007 lecture at Sewanee University, Christopher Hitchens gave an oxymoronically entitled talk called "The Moral Necessity of Atheism." In it, he argued that racism was illogical due to our common "relationship to ground worms and other creatures." An original case for equality to be sure. In as much as we're all like earthworms we really ought to treat each other well. Strange. Is not Hitchens an ardent supporter of the tenets of Neo-Darwinism that necessitates the perpetual death struggle within all species at all times? Shouldn't he in fact believe the precise opposite of what he claims? Survival of the fittest does not suggest social harmony. Furthermore, doesn't Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them "better" than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview -- quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value due to their creation in the "image of God." (Hat tip: Moshe Averick, Nonsense of a High Order) And yet, like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens is very often engaged in explaining "morality" to the world. What gives?

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic. I have not yet found an atheist who is willing to follow his or her convictions through to their logical conclusions (outside of sociopaths like Jeffrey Dahmer who was at least honest enough to say, "I always believed the theory of evolution as truth that we all just came from the slime ... if a person doesn't think there is a God to be accountable to then what's the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?").

Through my private conversations with atheists, most of whom I would describe as very good people, I am becoming convinced that they don't really buy the party line when it comes to ethics. Like it or not, they seem to have an objective sense that certain things are "just wrong" and it's almost as if those things are built into the fabric of reality. Objective morality requires an absolute standard by which to judge it. The alternative is amorality. As Dr. Joel Marks said, "the long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality..."

You can't have it both ways. If one has embraced the worldview that embraces amorality, then it would be logical to admit that one's personal morality is based on subjective preferences and comforting fiction or to recuse oneself from discussions (and lectures) on the topic.

Published: April 2, 2011


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Visitor Comments: 109

(60) Adrian, June 27, 2014 9:31 AM

I agree with anonymous

Rabbi Jones,
Your assumptions are wrong in two points :
a) We exist as a result of a natural process called evolution which requires certain physical conditions and took a few millions of years to happen . Each of us personally exists , due to the decision of our parents to have us and grew us and educate us.
b) We DO believe in free will ( at least some of us) , and in any case it is not a requirement to be an atheist . It can be said in the same way by a believer that everything "ïs God will" , after all he knows everything including the future.

We talk about morals mainly because people like you who claim that morality requires belief in a super power, God, and make it a point of attack against atheists.. Between ourselves there are many other subjects to talk about like movies, politics, football, family, work.....

A proud atheist Jew.

(59) Anonymous, December 6, 2013 10:08 AM

You missed

You missed out Part (1) of my post "You make so many assumptions about atheists" so I just posted it again.

And by the way, like I said, I'm Bernie (not Anonymous)

(58) Bernie, December 6, 2013 10:00 AM

You make so many assumptions about atheists (1)

You say: The average atheist makes certain basic assumptions about reality: that we all exist as a result of blind and purposeless happenstance, that free will is illusory, that there is no conscious "self" and that there is no objective right or wrong.

Well I'm an atheist and I don't go along with that at all. I do not think we all exist as a result of blind and purposeless happenstance. On the contrary, for me that the emergence of humanity is the result of a logical (but not logic-inspired) progression inherent in the process called evolution. That is not to say however that it was either foreseeable or inevitable, and any idea that it was the result of some pre-existing design is strongly contra-indicated, as there is no evidence or likelihood of a creator.
Neither do I deny free will (which I am exercising right now, in direct oppostion to my better judgement, by submitting this comment), nor do I deny the existence of my conscious self ("I think therefore I am" makes sense to me) nor even the validiity of right and wrong (although not quite clear what you mean by "objective").
Of course, you might immediately counter with the proposition that I am not an "average" atheist, but then how would you define who would fall into that category? As an atheist, I am constantly amazed at the variety of dispositions inherent in the condition. The more of them that I meet, the less sense I have of any kind of "average".
I see it this way. It is pretty easy to define an "average" Christian. Basically, an average Christian is someone who believes in a personal eternal soul, the existence of god, and Jesus Christ as personal saviour. These things are all pretty specific. The only thing that atheists share is that they don't believe in those specific things. Apart from that, they can believe pretty well anything. And they do - different atheists believe in all kinds of different things, and not only that, the degrees of their beliefs vary widely. -->

(57) Anonymous, December 5, 2013 10:47 PM

You make so many assumptions about atheists (3 - Final)

-->Throughout much of my life I regarded myself as an agnostic, on the basis that the existence of god, although extremely (to the nth degree) unlikely, could never be disproved, and it was only upon reading Richard Dawkins' book that I realised this was a perfectly acceptable notion to hold and that I am, in fact, an atheist.
So why am I bothering to make this comment? I guess it's because I'm getting angry at the way that people of religion persist in making fanciful generalisations about what I am supposed to think and supposed consequences such as me having no morality and suchlike, and somehow being the epitome of evil, and comparing me to people like Stalin and Hitler, and all that kind of nonsense, just because I, and people who think like me such as Prof Dawkins et al, refuse to pretend to believe in something that I (we) actually don't believe in and think, actually, is a load of nonsense. Oh, and of being labelled a "fundamentalist" and so on because we have the temerity to make our views public. As if you lot haven't been making your views public, in a most in your face and offensive way, often with force of arms, for thousands of years.
Phew - that's better!
Be happy.

(56) Anonymous, December 5, 2013 10:46 PM

You make so many assumptions about atheists (2)

--> Whereas Christians (and followers of other religions) believe in particular certainties, the only certainty that atheists share is that there is no such thing as absolute certainty. And even when an atheist says that something is certain, that is not generally understood by another atheist as certainty, as the certainty expressed by one Christian to another is taken as certain, but what might be defined as most highly probable. And there is no possibility of finding an average from that, since the whole of it is and must inevitably remain (except to the extent that it may not) for all eternity (whatever that may be taken to mean) and is therefore indivisible (hence incapable of yielding an average).

It is my understanding that a person of religion perceives it as a virtue to accept the truth of that religion, more or less as a voluntary act. That, I understand, is what is meant by religious faith. As an atheist, however, I do not accept the possibility of "deciding" to believe something, as if there was a choice. I can of course conceive of pretending to believe something, but that would require me to lie, and therefore be hypocritical. I am not an atheist because I choose to be one, I am an atheist because I am unable to be anything else, if you like because I know better.
I was not always an atheist. When I was very young I did believe in God. That was for my first couple of years at my first school, and it was only because my teachers told me so. But then I remembered how I had previously believed in Santa Claus only to discover that was just a clever game of my elders, and it clicked that this "god" was a similar sort of thing. It was a kind of revelation, and I soon learned how this knowledge was something which had to be managed with care, as in some quarters it could lead to trouble.
->

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