Sunday, December 17, 2006

Can Atheists Be Moral?

So people will say this pretty often in response to the prospect of atheists or atheism, "If there's no God, then what will keep people in line morally? What possible reason could they have for being moral?"

I'm never quite sure what this is supposed to show. Suppose that you don't believe in God, and suppose further that you grant this cryptic and strange point completely. What would that lead us to? Believing is unreasonable, as I see it, but then I look around at everyone else and myself and I realize that unless they believe in God we will all turn into stark raving, axe wielding maniacs. So even though it is not reasonable to believe in God, failing to believe will produce horrible moral consequences. So should I believe in that case? What exactly would that be like? I just think about it, and decide that even though believing in God is a silly, childish fairy tale, I need to believe anyway or else I will lose my moral compass and do all sorts of things that are morally horrible. It won't be enough for me to just act like I believe, because I know, better than anyone, what I actually believe. No, what's needed by this hypothesis is for me to really come to believe, when I currently don't. But currently I don't believe, and I should also point out that not believing is not filling me with outrageous urges to do horrible things. And I should also point out that some countries in northern Europe have nonbeliever rates as high as 55% or 60%, and the last time I checked the news, people aren't murdering, raping, child molesting psychotics there. In fact, their rates for lots of the most serious violent crimes are actually lower than they are for more religious countries. But back to the hypothesis: contrary to people's often saying that they "have a right to believe whatever they want to," and saying things like, "I am free to believe whatever I want to," I can't, and you can't, just decide to believe something that you don't believe now as a matter of willing it. Go on, try it: look at the plain, white wall of your office or bedroom and will yourself to believe that is it painted with red and yellow spots, or will yourself to believe that George W. Bush is not currently the president of the United States, or even harder, will yourself to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. You can't do it. So even if it is true that people lose their moral compass and do horrible things if they don't believe in God (they don't), what exactly could you do about it? I suppose you'd have to try to find a way to trick yourself into believing, and all because you are worried that without belief in God you're going to become a moral reprobate. But if you are an atheist, and you are worrying about the possibility that you are going to become immoral, then evidently your sense of morality is working just fine. Or at least it is working well enough for you to worry about the possibility that you might become a moral monster. So it looks like its just incoherent to suggest that atheists are less able to distinguish right and wrong from other people.
Ironically, the comment, "without God, people won't be moral," reveals an juvenile, shallow, and painfully underdeveloped sense of morality. The reason my dog doesn't pee on the carpet is because she's afraid of getting scolded or punished, and the reason she'll bark on command is that she wants treats. If you think that the primary reason people refrain from immoral acts is the threat of punishment, and the reason that they do good things is that they want to be rewarded, you're view of humanity is that they are little better than animals who have nor intrinsic motivation to do the right thing other than avoiding a spanking (hell) or getting the ultimate jerky treat (heaven). And that's an impoverished, insulting, and childish view of humanity given that our reasons for being good or for being bad are typically so much more complicated and interesting. Maybe you're recognizing the animal in yourself and feeling like the only thing that keeps you in line is the threat of punishment or the promise of reward. That would make sense for lots of preachers, priests, and sermonizers who have so much zeal for condemning their flock for their indiscretions--I often suspect that the red faced, spitting, shouting enthusiasm they have for berating us for our misdeeds is just misdirected anger at themselves for their own animal temptations and acts.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a good question.

Christian lore is that once we ate of the fruit, we gained knowledge of good an evil (and perhaps more importantly lost our innocence). We being all humans. That said it seems that even Christians fall far short of always acting morally.

So if an Athiest said "I Know Right From Wrong" a Christian should jus smile and know the source of that knowledge.

Where the question gets harder to answer is on the outside gold standard for morality. What outside source would atheists use to measure each other so they know when one was doing wrong? The laws of the nation? Sometimes those laws are themselves wrong.

This isn't an easy topic. Of course it's also not a reason that proves, disproves, or even has anything to do with God other than not using (and some do anyway) the Bible or other handy religious book as their external moral compass.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I believe you are geting at the critical issue.

Atheism cannot account for moral absolutes. But we know it is always wrong to kill, inflict unnecesssary pain and steal. For example, put yourself in the circumstances of a jew during the Nazi regime. A Nazi offical takes a gun and points it at you and says I am going to kill you, any last words. Is his action wrong or right? If you are an atheist and consistent with your worldview you would have to say that what he is doing is justified (or right) because it is his social norms. However, we know killing someone innocent is wrong.
Why? Because we know God in our heart of hearts that is why we know what is wrong or right. Not because of society rather some thing is wrong because it is contrary to the nature and character of God. But as the Bible says "they have supressed the truth in unrightiousness"(Rom 1:17-20)

Given the atheistic worldview Hitler would be a saint because he had the might so he had the right(Society was under his control). And Martin Luther King Jr. would be evil because he was trying to change the morals of society( disrupting the social contract established) during his time. However, this is not the case Hitler was a very evil man for the killings of innocent Jews. And Luther was standing up for the truth that we are all equal. As the Bible says we were all created in God's image(Gen 1:26)


The proof of the Christian worldview is that if it were not true we could not prove anything.

Matt McCormick said...

I will assume from the comment, anonymous II, that you did not read the post. Atheism does not entail moral relativism. This charge has been dealt with countless times. And it would seem that no matter how clearly one explains the reasons, people are determined to believe it. I can't prevent that--all I can do is offer the reasons that atheism does not entail moral relativism over and over and over, and hope that folks can stop quoted bible passages long enough to put some thought into it.

MM

R.C. said...

Matt, do you believe in moral absolutes like Paul Kurtz and George Smith? The reason I ask directly is because I do not have time to read all your articles, however, I will try and read some of them.

Matt McCormick said...

Human moral behaviors have their foundations in evolutionary history. Biologists and evolutionary psychologists have found proto-moral and moral behaviors in a wide range of non-human animals that suggest that there are some basic values embedded in us. Jonathan Haidt labels five:
harm, fairness, community, authority and purity. Steven Pinker has an accessible article on this too here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq=pinker&scp=1

See also Frans de Waal: Primates and Philosophers, and this lecture: http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/volume25/deWaal_2005.pdf

And the list goes on.

Evolution has made our moral behaviors and preferences about as real as anything can be. If you are asking whether I subscribe to some kind of Platonism about the existence of absolute, mind-independent of moral values then I'm pretty skeptical. But that's largely because I don't think that any non-particular, non-temporal, non-spatial abstractions exist, strictly speaking. There's just matter ultimately.

But before the hordes of suspicious theists out there pounce, let me emphatically repeat--taking the view that morality is the product of evolution does not entail moral relativism, or moral subjectivism. That doesn't make moral values any less real than the fact that our thumbs evolved makes our thumbs illusory or relative.

MM

R.C. said...

I believe a lot of people think Christian's morals come from God arbitrarily decreeing so. However, this is not true something is wrong because it is against the nature and character of God.

R.C. said...

Thanks Matt for the answer.

Matt McCormick said...

Dude, you really need to read Plato's Euthyphro. Socrates destroyed both of these positions 2,500 years ago. The question, "What is good?" is a distinct philosophical inquiry from the questions "What does God command?"

MM