Posted by: dacalu | 14 June 2013

Atheism and Morality

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook this evening to an article defending atheism.  I’m never entirely sure what “atheism” means, as some people use it to refer to secular humanism, others scientific positivism or materialism.  For still others, “atheism” means anti-religion.  So I always get nervous when people defend or attack “atheists” as a group.  That said, one particular pair of arguments leapt out at me and I’d like to say a word or two about it.  I don’t see how they can possibly fit together in one philosophy.

For the record, I am attacking a group of arguments, not a group of people.  I know many brilliantly rational atheists and hope to see their rationality rub off on the others.  I also know many brilliantly rational Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims.  They have coreligionists who make similar blunders.  If you are religious, watch closely.  There is a challenge for you here as well.

Here goes.

If atheism is being presented as an alternative to (other) religions, then it must be judged on the standards by which we compare religions.  How does it measure goodness?  And how does that line up with the notion of goodness in my communities?  Does it produce faith, hope, and love?  Does it create community?  Does it foster curiosity about people and the world?

These are not scientific questions.  They are value questions.  Any claim that absolute value does not exist – that we only have relative (personal, social, evolutionarily constructed) values – is in and of itself a value claim.  This doesn’t mean it’s true or false, only that it is a subjective question that does not have an objective answer.

If, on the other hand, atheism is being presented as a corrective for religion – particularly one that replaces questions of value with questions of fact – then it is open to attacks of amorality.  Indeed, it invites them.  The denial of objective morality is necessarily the assertion of subjective morality or no morality.

It seems to me that you can’t have it both ways.  If you want to be an atheist, I will defend your right to do so – just as I defend the rights of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus.  And just like those groups, I accept that most members have very poor arguments for their positions.  Still, I’m tired of atheists who will defend their atheism as rational and empirical and then get defensive on questions of morality.  If you want to assert there is no objective morality, you’re stuck with that statement.  Defend it.  On the other hand, if there really is a good and bad beyond social and biological construction, let’s have a real discussion about that.  How do you discern it?  What does it mean?  And how does it affect your life?

If you dodge the “is atheism a religion” question with empiricism (science) and in the next breath dodge the morality question with some appeal to innate goodness (or even a “my morality is just as good as yours” argument), then you are no more intellectually honest than the average zealot.

Can we please start actually having conversations about how we justify our moral beliefs?  We justify them to ourselves, even if we don’t justify them to others.  How does that work?  It would be so much more productive (producing both love and knowledge) than this holier than thou attitude that looks down on religious people as irrational or looks down on atheists as immoral.  Believe it or not, you can be both.


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