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Atheism and Morality

Atheism and Morality

Why do so many atheists make moral proclamations?


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.

April 2, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 112

(61) Sam, June 13, 2015 1:08 AM

Discrimination against atheists and an utter failure to understand moral realism

To break down this article, you quote numerous atheists who reject morality, yet you don't acknowledge that a large number of philosophers in metaethics that defend moral realism are atheists themselves. You have two fields within metaethics that atheists use to defend objective morality 1)naturalism and 2)non naturalism. Your article only mention 1) naturalism but strawmans this position. Naturalists fall into 3 categories 1)Neo-Aristotelian Naturalism, 2) Cornell Realism, 3) Jackson's Moral Functionalism. You assume that atheists have no grounds for believing in objective morality. You are an absolute disgrace. If your not prepared to read up on what atheists who defend moral realism have to say... then you are academically lazy at best, at worst dishonest. Now as I pointed out, you quote mined a few philosophers... well while I cannot speak for all of them, I can speak for Dawkins. Richard Dawkins is a moral realist, he completely agree with Peter Singer (a well established moral realist) on matters of metaethics. Dawkins was describing organisms that can't reason, he was describing how genes propagate, this has no implications in metaethics as he was talking about biology. Peter Singers book 'the expanding circle' elaborates on this... if you bother to read it.

Lets move onto the politics. You are saying that atheists have no rights. You have the nerve to suggest that Harris shouldn't have a position on morality, that atheists have no rights in regards to condemning the actions of criminals. Your saying atheists have to embrace apathy, that should a victim happen to be an atheist.. they have no right to say that the abuse they endured was wrong. You would argue that if an atheist came home to find out that a murderer had killed his/her entire family, that they can't condemn it. Rabbi Adam Jacobs you are objectively evil. I as an atheist will dedicate my life to stopping this discrimination from theists like you. That is the consequence of your actions.

Rivka, September 30, 2015 11:19 PM

calm. down.

It is your choice not to believe in the truth, so if anyone says something to the contrary, it's to be expected; it is impossible for everyone in the world to agree on an issue.

Secondly, this was not an attack at you personally, so don't take it that way.

Furthermore, the point was not that atheists can't have feelings or can't condemn something as right or wrong, rather that in doing so, they are acting on their OWN feelings, not by the true right or wrong. Despite the agreement of the two on occasion, you can't rely on that to be the case if you don't believe in the Creator of all right and wrong.

To put it simply, it just doesn't WORK.

Sam, May 25, 2016 6:46 PM

It works.

I am a believer in god yet I've studied philosophy and so am morally obligated to stick up for atheists. For the atheist or theist you don't need everyone in the world to agree on an issue. The facts are not dependent on popularity or perhaps more crudely the mob. People once blamed women for disease as they believed in witchcraft, in fact some in third world countries still believe this. They are objectively wrong.

"To put it simply, it just doesn't WORK."

It works and unlike you I provide an argument.
Example: An atheist is in a village watching a women be accused of witchcraft. She has been blamed for disease in the village and thus is going to be burned at the stake. The atheist can explain that morally they ought not burn the women, He can demonstrate that witchcraft isn't real, that disease is caused by bacteria/viruses and finally that anti bioitics will treat the disease.
NONE of the moral reasoning above appeals to the atheists feeling, it uses facts.
I consider this discriminatory against atheists and in practice dangerous. During the holocaust both religious and atheist Jews where murdered at the hands of the Nazi's. When the atheist Jew says his treatment was evil you would say 'its just his opinion and equal to the opinion of the nazis'. Yet when a religious Jew condemns his treatment it is objectively wrong. This is moral elitism, an atheist can say something is objectively wrong as much as a theist.

People can read the philosopher I have mentioned and will see that you have misrepresent atheists on objective morality.

(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)

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