So I knew we were in trouble right from the start.
In a recent piece in The Stone forum in the New York Times online “Opinionator” section, philosophy professor Gary Gutting takes on the so-called “New Atheism.” He argues that the so-called “new atheism” — encapsulated in his mind by Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” — relies too heavily on scientific and rational arguments against religion, and spends too much time making the case that religion isn’t, you know, true. He thinks that the so-called “new atheists” ignore how religion gives people meaning and transcendence, hope and morality, emotional comfort and social support. He thinks that we aren’t talking enough about secular alternatives for this meaning and transcendence, hope and morality, emotional comfort and social support. And he promotes the ideas of philosophy professor Philip Kitcher as a fresh alternative to this supposed tunnel vision.
This makes me want to facepalm so hard, it’d drive my nose into my brain.
Okay. Deep breath. I am going to my safe, peaceful place. Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean….
Alright. I can talk sensibly now. So. Memo to Professor Gutting.
The so-called “new atheists” are already talking about this.
We’re talking about it a lot.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
We get it about community building and secular philosophies of life. We’re not ignoring this. We’re on it.
And you know what? We’ve been on it for years. Every atheist blogger and organizer and activist I know is working on this, and we’ve been working on it for as long as I’ve been in the atheosphere. We know that we need to show people that atheists can be happy, moral people with meaning and joy in our lives — hence the atheist billboard campaigns. (Not to mention how hard we all keep hammering about coming out.) We know that we need to offer the kinds of emotional and social support people get from religion — hence the atheist meetup groups and communities popping up all over the country and all over the world. We know that we need to provide secular philosophies for dealing with death, suffering, morality, meaning, other big questions of life — hence the approximately eighty kajillion so-called “new atheist” writers who are writing about death, suffering, morality, meaning, and other big questions of life. (In addition to the writing we do about why religion is, you know, not true.)
Etc. Etc. Etc.
We know that we need to do more than pry people out of religion. We know that we need to provide them with a safe place to land when they fall. We talk about it ad nauseum. We strategize about it. We bicker about the best ways to do it. We sink time and money and countless hours of hard work into it.
We’re on it.
In his essay, Gutting positions Philip Kitcher as a fresh, visionary alternative to the so-called “new atheists.” But I don’t see this at all. As far as I can tell, Philip Kitcher is a “new atheist.” His ideas, as summarized by Gutting, seem like they might be interesting and worth paying attention to. But they’re also very familiar. I think the term “new atheism” is bullshit, as do most so-called “new atheists”… but even if I accepted it as valid, I wouldn’t see Kitcher’s ideas as some sort of radical cutting-edge alternative to it. They’re not “beyond new atheism. They’re right in line with it.
And if Gutting had spent ten minutes in the atheist blogosphere, he would know that.
Gutting spends his entire essay fulminating about how “The God Delusion” is not, by itself, enough of a foundation to replace religion. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that “The God Delusion” is the only work of so-called “new atheism” he’s read.
(Hat tip to Susie Bright for sending me this story.)
106 thoughts on “Can Critics of "New Atheists" Please Read Some First?”
Another book that you and Gutting should really consider for so-called “new atheist” alternatives to religious “answers” to the human condition and life’s more difficult challenges is Richard Norman’s book, _On Humanism_. It not only critically analyses and rebukes religion in favour of secular reason, evolution, and science (in general), it offers a number of “spiritual” alternatives for personal and social growth, along with a secular and philosophical approach to ethics.
We really can’t win, can we?
When we talk about how religion is unsupported by science and logic and evidence and reason, someone like Gary Gutting comes out of the woodwork and says: “No, that’s not religion is about! It’s about psychological needs like comfort and community and meaning and values!”
When we talk about how many believers base their belief around these things and not around evidence and reason, someone like Rabbi Wolpe comes along and slaps us on the wrist for attributing our own position to evidence but the position of religious people to psychological needs.
Heads they win, tails we lose.
The only thing I see missing are the requirements that everyone be super involved with atheist groups and donate a portion of their income to some atheist group. We’re also missing any punishment for not following any “rules” we could come up with, though we happen to be missing our own special rules to follow that are separate from any moral tenants that could be reasoned out. Well, ok, I guess we could call those the rules.
Also, we’re missing the free childcare on Sunday morning, and requiring those who don’t have kids to watch the kids.
Somehow religion convinces people to focus their entire lives around that religion, whereas atheism or other secular groups allow for people to have a life outside of the group.
Well said! I recently wrote a short review in Goodreads of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God in which I mentioned that she and Dawkins have more in common then she might care to admit. In that review, I point how how they both spend a lot of time debunking the “cartoon version” of religion (Biblical literalism, infallible revealed Truth, etc.) that a distressing proportion of self-described “believers” subscribe to. Thing is, most of her book was spent historically examining and advocating for the “other” aspects of spirituality: ethics, meaning of life, good works, loving thy neighbor, etc., that the New Atheists also attend to.
Yes, we’re all writing and thinking hard about the Big Questions – the only difference is whether one is willing to admit the supernatural into the discussion.
Glad I found your blog!
“…critically analyses and rebukes religion in favour of secular reason, **evolution,** and science (in general)…”
Nooooooo! Don’t recommend things that contain evolution, folks! Don’t politicize it! People tie atheism to evolution and then are hostile to learning it. We do science a grand total of ZERO service by hindering its teaching.
I wouldn’t mind so much if they’d stop trying to legislate their ‘psychological support-mechanism’ into my life, my classrooms, my government and my science labs…
Gary Gutting, like so many before him, wants the God Delusion to be something it’s not. He seems disappointed that The God Delusion isn’t an atheist replacement for the bible – never considering it was never meant to be anything of the sort.
As far as I can tell, many critics of ‘new’ atheism have never actually read anything beyond The God Delusion. A lot of them don’t seem to have even read that, and are only familiar with the soundbite version.
Last night I ended up in an argument about atheism and Doctor Who. (It was totally relevant to the latest episode, in ways I won’t spoil because I bet there are fans reading this blog who haven’t seen it yet). My religious opponent was insisting that Richard Dawkins’ atheism was a matter of faith, and that he’s 100% certain that there is no God. Clearly they haven’t paid attention to anything Dawkins has actually written about this!
AnneS, I have a copy of someone’s dissertation on “Religion in Doctor Who”, which discusses (unsurprisingly) at great length the various themes. “Doctor Who” was heavily influenced by the fact that the writers were often atheists, and religion was portrayed as something quaint and blinkered. I would post a link (if allowed?), but the article has vanished since, a great shame. The writer also comments on the fact that many followers become atheists (which I would dispute, I would think that many followers were already atheists, but met up with fellow non believers and then felt comfortable about stating that).
I think we have to remember that religion has been fooling people for a very, very long time, and it’s going to take a long time to chip away at it (hopefully, less than several centuries with the advent of the Internet). Greta, you’re doing as much as is humanly possible! Remember your happy place! At least the arguments all seem like old ones, no one has come up with anything new or radical – even when they say that they have – witness the “Evidence for a Creator – the support will surprise you..” discussion from Amazon UK.
I have dealt with Gutting before. About a year ago he wrote an article where he made the mistake of misunderstanding the definitions of atheism and agnosticism, forcing me to school him. This turned into some email dialogue which I subsequently posted.
I have not seen him make that mistake in his articles since (although I have not looked extensively), so calling him out on these things seems to have some effect.
It is funny to me that the academics in religion know so little about new atheism. You would think they would be interested in actually studying the subject, since it is related to what they teach.
Hear Hear, Greta!
Apparently for some people, it is impossible for atheists to walk and chew gum at the same time. We cannot both critique backward faith-beliefs and try to replace religious institutions for morality, meaning, and community at the same time. And Dawkins cannot both be the guy who wrote the most high profile unapologetically atheist attack on religious belief in decades and the guy who at the same time most prominently and successfully spearheaded the movement to get atheists to “come out” as atheists. It was Dawkins who launched the “Out” campaign which encouraged atheists to make their identity a matter of explicit, proud identity analogously to the way gay people have owned and stood up for their homosexuality in recent decades. Without Dawkins’s leadership in encouraging atheists to proudly embrace their atheism and become a vocal community so much currently existing energy propelling the creation of self-consciously secular alternatives to religion on the grass roots would not exist.
It is looks fairly clear to me that this extraordinary rising consciousness did not result from decades worth of academic atheistic philosophy that rarely deigned to aggressively argue in the public square for disbelief or for secular cultural alternatives to faith-based religions. Even today there are still only relatively few professional philosophers writing in the opinion pages, speaking at atheistic conferences, running grass roots secularist organizations, or engaging the public through self-consciously secularist blogs which are friendly to non-philosophers. The very group most qualified to have editorial columns in major newspapers that advocate about such issues writes a minority of pieces one finds there on philosophical topics.
And the professional philosophy books that are coming out which do discuss the disbelief of philosophers seem to be a result of, rather than a corrective to, the brush clearing work of New Atheists, as Gutting himself admits. Hopefully these new efforts by professional philosophers will actually be pitched to the public and not left in the ivory towers where philosophical atheism has long happily and complacently thrived by avoiding the public square, while fundamentalism and irrationalism spread like wild fire throughout North America, the Middle East, and Africa.
Gutting gestures at appreciation for Dawkins for firing back at the fundamentalists after they pushed religion into the public square for debate and for power, but now he would like Dawkins to get out of the way and let the real philosophers take over, even though it was the philosophers who in the first place failed in our duties for decades to educate the public about critical thinking and the rational sources of ethics and meaning, and who were complacent while an ignorant public was being trained in publicly unchallenged sophistry and moral regressivism by their churches and mosques.
I am totally supportive of philosophers finally entering the fray more aggressively and constructively standing up for cultural secularism and offering to the atheist movement uniquely philosophical resources that it might develop better accounts of epistemology, morality, metaethics, soul, and meaning, and contribute to the creation of better, secular non-faith-based, non-authoritarian, non-superstitious religions. But ingratitude to the New Atheists and underestimation of the scope of their contributions is not the place to start helping out.
As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem he’s even read “The God Delusion”. At least not with an understanding of what it tries to point out.
This would not be inconsistent with how Dawkins’ previous works have been mischaracterized based on their title (“The Selfish Gene”, anyone?).
Perhaps the message here is that Dawkins should give his books less provocative titles; however, his less provocatively titled books do receive significantly less attention, despite very good content, so it’s a double-edged sword.
[…] Can Critics of “New Atheists” Please Read Some First? | Greta Christina’s Blog […]
[…] have already been several responses to Gutting’s piece, and my favorite is by Greta Christina, who suggests that The God Delusion is the only “new atheist” book Gutting has read. But […]
I’m halfway through Harris’s “Moral Landscape” (By half I mean I read the essay first, and now I’m buried in the notes/references, which takes up a larger percentage of the book than the essay!) and I have to say that the possibilities are exciting. Understanding how and why we approach morality the way we do through neuroscience allows us to better understand one another. Harris thoroughly trashes moral relativism and provides some very strong examples of moral diversity. I’m new to fully accepting my atheism (subsisting primarily on apatheism) and haven’t given much thought to morality other than simply evaluating what I consider right and wrong along the fulcrum of harm and this book really put it into perspective. The “New Atheists” are worth reading whether you’re an atheist or not, and if you haven’t read them, you can’t judge them, whether you’re an atheist, pantheist, agnostic, pagan, theist, deist, apatheist or pastafarian. The sad thing is that most spiritualists will pick up Deepak Choprah before reading something like this as it is more “enlightening” that that man’s entire library!
“See, we’re doing all those things the nice Christians are doing, but we just do it out of the goodness of our hearts.” This is the hollowness of neoatheist values. Science is a reductive tool for discernment, not the primary tool in the toolbox for forging a values system. Because they wrongly exalt science to the level of being able to create values, neoatheists are left in a moral vacuum from which they are forced to suck up the values of the culture that surrounds them.
Values can arise (and I would assert, ultimately should arise) from a place other than religious dogma, using science to hone them and derive feedback about their application in the world. But neoatheists don’t appear to be doing this, either. Why would someone or a whole movement of someones spend so much ink talking about how atheists are “happy, moral people” whose values are really not all that different from those of their religious peers?
Atheism will never fully replace the “hope” that religion provides, because the “hope” that they’re talking about is the hope that they and their loved ones will survive their own deaths.
This isn’t much different than demanding atheism replace theistic morality. We never will, because atheism will never provide an ‘objective’ morality that has been divinely revealed to us.
What theists often don’t understand is that this is a feature, not a bug, of atheism. Gutting says we ought to default to a “religion of hope” that is supposedly our “only real chance at fulfillment.” Atheists say, no! It’s not a real chance. There is no hope of an afterlife. What we do offer is the hope of understanding reality and of not wasting this life – your only life – chasing after a lie.
Why would someone or a whole movement of someones spend so much ink talking about how atheists are “happy, moral people” whose values are really not all that different from those of their religious peers?
You’re completely missing the point, here. Atheists don’t take the position that religious people in general have awful, evil morals that need to be completely opposed. We spend all that time talking about how our morals aren’t that much different because we KNOW that theists aren’t getting their morality from the bible. We know this because the vast majority of theists ignore most of the rules! They don’t stone their rebellious teens to death; they wear poly-cotton shirts; they eat shrimp.
The rules from their holy book that they do choose to follow says a lot more about them than the holy book. God always hates the people you hate and always roots for your football team. Pro-gay Christians claim follow one set of versus. Anti-gay Christians claim to follow another. There’s a reason that anti-LGBT, anti-woman verses get so much comparative airtime.
The problem with religion is that it pretends to be the source of moral values, and people are pressured into following some of the shittier versus because their social network convinces them that if they don’t believe X, they’re going to hell. Without religion, good people would do good things, and evil people would do evil things. For good men to do evil things, that takes religion.
I think when apologists use the term “new atheist,” they mean “post 9/11 atheists who are no longer willing to keep their heads down and their mouths shut and let us do whatever we want because we are the numerical majority.”
Obelos: Who’s doing that? I don’t know anyone who says science can create values. What many people are saying is that science (especially neuroscience and neuropsychology) can be a useful tool in helping us see what our values actually are. And, of course, people are saying that science, and a scientific/ evidence- based approach to life, can help us see whether the moral actions we’re taking are actually having the effect we’re intending.
And again — who’s doing that? The atheists I know are happy to distinguish their moral values from those of Christians, and to point out that the supposedly “nice” Christians often aren’t so nice.
Yes, as human beings, we share core moral values with others in our society, including believers. We seem to have evolved with these as social animals. And yes, as human beings, part of our moral compass comes from the culture that surrounds us. Again, we’re social animals, that’s what we do. But the so-called “new atheists” I know take pains to point out the immorality of much religious doctrine and behavior, and to set ourselves apart from and against it.
There’s a difference between saying, “We’re human beings like the rest of humanity, and we care about morality and goodness as much as anybody”… and saying, “We’re just like believers and we share your moral values.” I know lots of atheists who are saying the first. I don’t know any who are saying the second.
Anyone who thinks that religious people don’t “suck up the values of the culture that surrounds them” should compare the attitude toward slavery among believers today to that of believers in ancient Israel or the antebellum U.S. South. Did God’s revealed Word change sometime during the 19th century?
What bugs me the most about those kinds of articles and the derpy woo-woo comments that follow is that they seem to think we atheists are all alike.
Theologians have certain priorities and, when they look at other people, map those priorities to them. They find spiritual explorations important and believe their lives are shaped by that. They think everyone else is like that, as well, and if they are not, they pick some kind of stereotypical opposite that they don’t like and map it to those people.
Tony Bourdain is annoying in a similar way. He’s a chef who likes meat and gets unbelievably pissy about vegetarians.
I certainly agree that the vast bulk of self-identifying religious people cannot usefully cite the basis for their values in any specific way nor construct a causal path between principle and action. Being “religious” is not equitable with the ability to understand and act upon first principles any more than being “atheist” refers to a person who truly has snatched the reins of their individual liberty away from superstitious dogma to establish their own values into the world. However, at least the religious are somewhat less blind about the pre-rational basis of their values, whereas atheists often cite the likewise irrational notions of “nature,” “natural law,” “social creatures,” et al as rational precepts. The advantage ultimately goes to the religious in this case, who recognize they are sheep, when you have Dawkins jumping up and down violently waving his hands in effort to try to distract people from the obvious conclusion about the selfish gene, which is that it upends entirely the conventional notions of basis of good and evil into absolutely relative constraints.
Sam Harris’ project, from his own description, is the assertion that science tells us about our first principles, and that the highest of these principles is an egalitarian mandate for the reduction of suffering since evolutionary forces select those who successfully avoid it. Dawkins asserts that since our values arise as behavioral traits which exert selective pressure from context-specific forces, we can use science to derive those principles (though he goes on to say we can then pick and choose from them based on… something or other that we now understand to be “good”). How are these different from endeavoring to use science as the primary tool for attempting to establish values?
I’m interested in learning more about atheists who are digging into the values problem in an intelligent manner. Who can I read that’s doing better than this?
“This would not be inconsistent with how Dawkins’ previous works have been mischaracterized based on their title”
Of all the double standards, this is the one that gets my biggest goat – they get to write books that react to Dawkins based solely on the title, we’re not qualified to comment on their religion unless we’ve personally been touched by the hand of Jesus, after spending years memorizing every word of Aquinas and Augustine. Oh, and if anyone *used* to be in their religion but left it, then … that doesn’t count either.
And when we do have a reasonable working knowledge of their religion, and point out inconsistencies, historical developments and so on … it’s nitpicking. We have to understand the full picture.
Meanwhile, you say something like ‘conservation of energy’ or ‘common descent’ and very few of them have any idea, at all, what you’re talking about. We have to know exactly when Aquinas is saying something that’s infallible Church doctrine and when he’s blowing stuff out him bum … they can come up with howlers like ‘with evolution, there was a point where a monkey gave birth to the first man, and that’s Adam’.
I was on Prosblogion for a while, and having constructive chats, and in one of them we agreed that if there was a God, he’d be bound by certain logical axioms. 2+2=4 for God, just as it would for anyone else. Standard Christian theology, apparently. So I asked ‘well, OK … is he bound by E=MC^2?’. And I seriously had university theology professors asking ‘what’s that?’.
The answer, of course, is ‘something that, if it holds, makes your God impossible’, which is why I asked the question.
How long are you meant to skip down Bullshit Lane before you decide that the cowpat smell isn’t going away, and you can make a reasonable working assumption about the brown stuff flying out of the arses of the cows lining your route?
I’ve read a lot of theology. Not studied it formally – I passed my exams, so got into my first choice course – but I’ve read a lot of it. The staggering thing about it is just how weak it is, as an argument, from a neutral position.
From a believer’s position, it’s fine, actually. If you take it as axiomatic that God exists, the ‘first cause’ argument is actually extremely sound. But I’ve had *pets* who could see the problems with trying to use the first cause argument *to* prove God exists.
This is the gulf. We’re talking about two completely different mindsets. As atheists, we see God as a hypothesis, to be tested. There could be gods … let’s see if the universe behaves like there are gods in it. Christians, say, don’t do that. They think our universe without a God in it must have a god-shaped hole, and think atheists want to live in that hole.
My universe is bigger, older, stranger and richer than the one in the Bible. Simple as that. I don’t need to be lectured on my ignorance of the nature of the universe by a theologian who struggles to remember the order of the planets in our Solar System.
New article at the stone!
And there’s an interview with the man himself, Mr Dawkins as a lead on page 1
In fact the NYT seems to be waging its own war on faith lately, albeit in a “balanced” manner.
“Dawkins asserts that since our values arise as behavioral traits which exert selective pressure from context-specific forces, we can use science to derive those principles (though he goes on to say we can then pick and choose from them based on… something or other that we now understand to be “good”)”
No. He says that we have an awareness of the process by which we make decisions, and that creates a situation where we can go against instinct in a way that, say, a lion can’t.
The ‘something’ is simply a highly-developed understanding of the decision making process.
There’s nothing in Dawkins’ mechanism that dictates what a ‘non instinctive’ decision must be or what this ‘good’ would be. But there are obvious suggestions – behave in a long term way, not a short term one; behave on a global scale, not an individual one; gather more information and act on it rationally.
There are huge problems with this. But the basic premise is that we’re the only species who understand game theory, and as such we’re the only species who know how to escape it. The problem The Selfish Gene has for me is it makes game theory seem so attractive, natural and sensible, it makes you wonder why we’d want to do anything else.
Steve Jeffers #24
I have a similar complaint. We’re supposed to know whether angels dancing on the heads of pins are waltzing or foxtrotting, yet goddists can reject every other god but theirs without knowing anything about these gods including their names.
“yet goddists can reject every other god but theirs without knowing anything about these gods including their names.”
One of my favorite Dawkins lines – ‘atheists simply disbelieve in one god more than Christians’. It doesn’t quite work as logic, but it does work as ‘fuck you’, and in the end, isn’t that what really matters?
There’s a fairly cliched way to explain why I don’t believe in God to a believer … I don’t believe in your god the same way you don’t believe in Jupiter.
What I really like is when some Christian tries to pull the ‘New Atheist’ line, to make it sound like there weren’t any atheists before The God Delusion came out or something and people should believe in things with a bit of tradition behind it. There were atheists, asking the same questions (and getting the same, crappy non-answers from believers) since before there was writing. One of the earliest stone tablets rails against all the people who don’t worship the gods. It’s in Sanskrit. If a Catholic really needs a belief system with a pedigree, that person should forget the Jesus fad and fall in with us.
Who knows what strange gods people will believe in ten thousand years from now? I don’t … but I know that there will be a group of people pointing out how feeble the evidence for those gods is, that they can live a moral life without them and that either the gods are capricious or serve a higher wisdom.
Either that, or scientists will have discovered Heaven and dragged out its inhabitants and charged them with war crimes. Either way’s good.
The problem is that atheism is the either the lack of belief in or conscious rejection of God(s), and any activity that falls outside of that isn’t particularly atheistic, new or old. It could also be argued that new atheists don’t cook much or ride bicycles, but (even if true) that has little to do with their atheism.
Arguing that atheists are formulating morality also distorts what atheism is. Atheism may be somewhat relevant to some moral options, but it’s ultimately at best a small part. Almost all of the following moral systems could be pursued by either an atheist or a believer:
(1) Maximize one’s ow pleasure by enslaving all others or killing those who cannot be enslaved.
(2) Maximize one’s own pleasure by cooperating with others to maximize theirs as well.
(3) Seek pleasure or some later reward by devoting oneself to the service of others without attempting to maximize one’s own pleasure.
(4) Seek pleasure or some later reward by obeying the commands of some God.
(5) Kill oneself to mimimize one’s own suffering or the suffering of others.
(6) Sacrifice some pleasure to minimize one’s own suffering or the suffering of others.
Obviously number 4 couldn’t be pursued by an atheist, but numbers 5 and 6 are close substitutes.
I do think the defining characteristic of the new atheists is their obsession with atheism and overstated hatred of religion. I think the hatred is particularly overdone with respect to generic theism or deism, against which their arguments are not especially powerful. The idea of a children’s camp devoted to that sort of mindset is a bit weird. I mean, there are strong arguments for and against the philosophical positions favoring strict empiricism, or strict rationalism, and everything in between, but I doubt anyone would devote a camping experience to enforcing a particular one of those views.
Greta, feel free to facepalm as hard as you like. Although death by nose in the brain occasionally is shown in movies, it’s not actually possible to die that way. Several bones block the nose’s path into the cranium.
I’m certainly a fan of Richard Dawkins’ writing. (The God Delusion was the first atheist book I read. I very much enjoyed The Greatest Show on Earth and plan to read his other books about evolution.) However, I do wish that articles about atheism didn’t assume that his views are atheist dogma and didn’t compare everyone else with Dawkins, along the lines of “X person, unlike Dawkins, says…”
Morality and meaning in life are topics I love to think about, and as you wrote, many atheists are addressing them. I think people assume that anyone who can’t sum up their morality concisely (by saying something like “Follow God” or “What would Jesus do”) doesn’t have any answers, when in fact, they may be living life and trying to figure things out instead of pretending to have all the answers already.
@Larry G (#4): You’re review really made me think. I’d been planning to read some of Armstrong’s books anyway, but had only heard bad things. Your point that she’s be making a similar point (in different words) as those who she criticizes is really interesting.
@Steve Jeffers (#24):
I’ve noticed the double standard, too. I actually rather enjoy learning about various religions but get tired of being told that atheists have to be experts about religions when often many followers don’t even know much about their own religion.
@’Tis Himself, OM (#27)
There’s one angel dancing on the head of a pin. His name is Aziraphale, and he’s dancing the gavotte, provided he can find a suitable partner…
“Arguing that atheists are formulating morality also distorts what atheism is.”
I’m very sympathetic to this, but I think ‘atheists can lead a moral life’ is one of the fundamental tenets of any atheist belief.
The standard believer position is ‘all morality ultimately flows from the gods’. There are a number of corollaries of that, but one of them is basically that atheism is like being a benefits cheat – we get to soak up the goodness the gods pour out, without the obligations.
Now, attacking that position is, I think, fair cop. The Greek atheists had the answer: either the gods are capricious, or they serve higher values. If they serve higher values, we can cut out the middleman and serve them, too.
Personally, I don’t think coming up with ‘atheist morality’ or ‘scientific morality’ or ‘rational morality’ is helpful. Mainly because I think … well, every human being negotiates these things.
I do not believe that my atheism makes me a moral superior being. I believe it makes me a less foolish one than someone who sprinkles magic dust on the Head Pixie’s special stone every Thursday morning, or whatever it is Christians and Muslims actually do, but I very specifically *don’t* believe that I have access to some special source of wisdom.
I think that it is interesting that in the UK, religion has just slowly and quietly slid out of fashion as people have gradually realised that they can live perfectly well without it. We don’t need anything to replace it. People get together over mutual interests, sport, gardening, music, model railways, homebrewing, whatever.
I do have a problem with someone who does not seem to care about whether something is true or not. To me truth, as well as we can discern it, is hugely important. Believing something that is self evidently untrue is almost always harmful and to be avoided.
Whoa Greta, slow down there a little. You want them to read a book? They don’t even see the need to read their Bibles, why in Spock’s name should they read a book about atheism?
Good post Greta but I can’t help feeling that you’re piece misses the fundamental point. Prof. Gutting complains that in decrying religion as not true, Dawkins et al are not highlighting the good things religion does – which is quite bizarre as a defence for any belief system rooted in magic.
“But look what good we do!” is merely side-stepping the fundamental issue of whether a belief in supernatural god or gods is any way rational, logical, or healthy (for the individual or society). The collateral effects that come from it are beside the point. If everyone in Ireland believed in leprechauns, and worked together to keep the countryside clear of litter so that they wouldn’t get angry, and wholesome altruistic communities of leprechaun-loving people dominated the country, would that mean we should simply give a pass to everyone for throwing their lot in with a ridiculous belief system for which there is no evidence? What if that ‘leprechaunism’ reduced vandalism, banished sexism and racism, and saved the whales, but also involved a belief that all children were born tainted and deserved punishment throughout their whole lives for something that adult leprechaunists believed had happened (but it actually didn’t really happen) before they were born? What if leprechaunism justified acts of murder? Do we overlook the fact that having faith in magic cobblers and in their own righteousness is a stupid thing to do merely because there were certain good outcomes, just so we can debate another lesser point?
I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote. I guess it just really annoys me that the religious persist in this diversionary tactic and that atheists feel compelled to overlook it. I’m a fan of Sam Harris and I’m enjoying The Moral Landscape for the second reading, and agree that such demonstrations are important, but in their own right, not as a response to religious sleight-of-hand. Religious assertions that irrational, illogical belief systems revolving around supernatural men / creatures and ritual magic are correct needs to be dealt with first – they don’t get to change the subject on that. They first provide evidence for why a supernatural almighty creator would decide to help an NFL team do well in the SuperBowl while allowing millions of children to starve to death during the match. They clearly demonstrate why reciting the same prose five times a day while facing a particular direction on the compass will save me from an eternity in torment. Once they put those fundamental arguments to bed and if they clearly demonstrate that those belief systems are logical and totally compatible with scientific thought, then they get to tell us how crazy we are for not having their specific moral compasses.
@obelos “I’m interested in learning more about atheists who are digging into the values problem in an intelligent manner. Who can I read that’s doing better than this?”
Hmmm, I seem to see that “intelligent” must mean “having gotten the same answer I did and that’s the only result I’ll accept”. Rather a pity.
@vel: I believe we have here is a case of the pot calling the snowfall black.
Atheist bloggers and other writers are taking part in a wider discussion with nonbelievers.
Trying to critique a part of a conversation without taking into account the rest of the conversation is a dumb thing to do.
If you don’t know what we’re responding too, it makes it difficult to provide a good reading or critique of what we’re trying to say.
At this point you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking “Yes, I know that, you don’t need to tell me!”
But I do need to at the very least remind you – because if you’d been paying attention to the conversation then you wouldn’t need to ask the kinds of questions you’re asking.
Atheists are regularly bombarded with imagery and rhetoric from religious believers as to how sad, miserable, and angry we are with God. This is a dismissal of us and our ideas: Don’t listen to the atheists boys and girls. They’re just mean and grumpy.
For a change, emphasis below is not mine – it’s in the original text.
This kind of rhetoric and imagery is common. So in large part the insistence that atheists can live happy and fulfilled lives is in response to this kind of dehumanization that comes from the believers.
I could go on dissecting this little gem for a few thousand words – but that’s getting off the point.
The fact that some atheists want to argue in opposition to the prejudicial idea that atheists are ‘often very grumpy and bitter and will lash out at children’ shouldn’t require any justification beyond what is already obvious.
This is but one example. There are others.
Then we have the other half of the coin – the notion that atheists are inherently immoral or nihilistic.
For Exhibit B I’ll cite the inimitable Rabbi Moshe Averick’s article A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late
No, really. Someone wrote an article with that title. It’s almost inspired – you just can’t make this stuff up.
In the case of Rabbi Moshe, he has a history of raising the red flag to the bull. He regularly writes articles that are deliberately provocative with the intention of getting a rise out of us, and therefore attention and traffic. It works.
It’s hard to find a paragraph in this article that doesn’t contain a slanderous gem in it. I really could just copy/paste the whole thing… But here’s an excerpt that’s fairly representative of the whole piece:
Moshe’s stance on this isn’t unique to himself. Granted, this is an uniquely transparent instance of the idea – which is what makes it such a nice example.
But it is an idea that is very common among religious critics of atheism.
Again: Is it really so surprizing that some athiests care passionately about correcting this prejudice?
I don’t think it is… But you sure do sound plenty surprised, Obelos.
Can you see why I think you haven’t been paying attention?
You raise the subject of The Moral Landscape and Sam Harris as if these were representative of all atheists.
Again: I don’t think you can possibly have been paying much attention, because some of the most scathing critiques of Sam’s ideas have come from atheists. And not just the ‘leave religious believers alone’ crowd of accomodating belief-in-belief atheists either. Some of the more hard-nosed atheists have had some very critical things to say about Sam’s book.
Russel Blackford in particular is rather even-handed and highlights what he views to be the good and the bad. His review can be found here: Book review: Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.
For me personally: I agree with nearly everything Sam puts in that book, with only one reservation. I’m not prepared to allow that the statement that ‘the good is equivalent to human flourishing’ is something we can consider true in the sense of being a brute fact about the cosmos. Sam doesn’t exactly say that either – but what he does say is stated in such a way that it is very, very easy to misinterpret what he is saying to fit with the statement above.
To be clear: I think it’s a good value in the sense that I largely agree with it and think it’s generally a very good value if not the best value to bring to the table in moral discourse. I think it is obvious and sensible and attempts to strip away the interference of cognitive biases in the fairest possible way – one of the two senses of the term ‘objective’ which Sam discusses in his book and the primary sense of the term as he uses it. If you get this far into my comment and want to make a reply please use the word screwdriver in your response to prove you actually read the whole thing and didn’t just skim it for easily dismiss-able key phrases.
Using the term ‘objective’ in this sense was a small mistake mistake, in my view. Even with the clarification Sam provides, it is an open invitation to being misinterpreted and dismissed. Then again, Sam is always going to be misquoted and misinterpreted anyway. One could argue that he wrote the book for the people who will actually read the book and reflect on it thoughtfully. If that is the goal then the people who are only looking for an excuse to dismiss the book can be damned… The latter perspective is why I downgrade Sam’s use of ‘objective’ from mistake to small mistake.
But really – if you want to know more about why atheists care so much about pointing out that atheists can be happy and moral people, just use Google, read atheist blogs and the comment threads, find our books and articles, and so on.
Look at what we are writing, and look at what we are replying to.
Just start paying attention.
It’ll get obvious pretty quickly
I’m aware of the slanderous statements some people make about atheists. While I think some of the energy directed at the crazies could be put to better use elsewhere, it’s important for atheists to clarify misinformation about their beliefs and who they are. The PR efforts have obviously done some good and are at least partially responsible for fomenting a movement, and I’m pleased with just about any movement that serves to undermine the legal and cultural restrictions of the Christlemews. That’s not what I’m criticizing when I poke at the “happy, moral people” reference.
The reason I bring up Sam Harris is not because I think he’s someone that no atheists are critiquing. When Greta was unable to come up with an example of someone who argues that science can create values, it seemed pertinent to use the author she herself was citing most prominently in this very post. You can debate whether or not Sam is actually arguing that science tells us first principles, but taking for a moment the other tack and simply saying that he is not, that his proposition that the good is defined by its ability to diminish suffering is axiomatic, where does that leave things? We’re thrust back into the realm of My Axiom vs. Your Axiom, formerly known as My God vs. Your God. The conclusion is that, save for positing that all axioms are equally arbitrary regardless of their supposed divine origins, atheism is incapable of saying anything constructive about morality and values.
This is what I mean when I say that neoatheist “values” are hollow. So without asserting some sort of origin for values, using terms like “happy, moral people” (more for the “moral” than the “happy”) ultimately cedes ground to that against which atheism is supposedly in opposition because those are the frameworks that have a basis for differentiating principles. It’s a capitulation. Atheism is immoral. Atheists should embrace the liberty that provides and find different language to talk about why they choose to behave in a given way.
“Atheism is immoral.”
Isn’t it amoral?
From the moralists’ perspective, certainly not.
We’re hitting on one of my pet hates with internet discussions.
Person A says X.
I argue against X.
Person A says they really meant Y.
It’s always really tempting to cry ‘goal-post mover’ when this happens – but I’ll take your word for it. Either I had a comprehension fail, or you worded your original comments badly, or perhaps a mix of both.
Moving onto the new topic you’ve introduced:
I won’t be taking that advice.
We seem to be doing quite well as we’re currently going. And I think that adopting your advice would actually blunt our effectiveness, not increase it.
Thanks for offering though.
Here’s why I won’t be taking your advice.
First, semantics: Morality is a fuzzy label we use to refer to various components in the overall body of discourse on the subject of how humans should behave – which piece we’re pointing at depends on the context in which the term is used. Sometimes it is used to point to the precepts and prohibitions that are the conclusions, sometimes it points to the discussion that forms the supporting arguments, and sometimes it points to the premises that support those arguments. It’s a messy word, but it’s the one that gets used.
Trying to tie morality down to a more concrete definition in this context seems to me that it will wind up assuming the conclusion that is under dispute.
For example: If we define morality as ‘a list of prescriptions and prohibitions of human behavior that is ultimately grounded in a cosmically significant origin’, then this presupposes what kinds of arguments and premises qualify to begin with.
Alternatively: If we define morality as ‘a list of prescriptions and prohibitions of human behavior that is ultimately grounded in scientifically proven methods for maximizing human flourishing as relative to a local optima on a moral landscape’ then this again presupposes what kinds of arguments and premises will qualify to begin with.
For yourself, you seem to buy into some definition of morality that is similar to my first restrictive example above – that morality must be grounded in an origin of sorts.
I do not think that this is correct. To be fair, it is of course one model for how morality might work. But it is not the only such model. There are others.
In my eyes, doing as you suggest and shun the concept of ‘morality’ altogether would be the real act of capitulation.
Because it would be granting the assumption that morality must be founded on origins – which is one of the very assumptions to which I am opposed when considering morality as a whole its own right.
Daniel Schealler #38 wrote:
Yes it is — but Objective Ministries (like Landover Baptist) is a satire site, so you probably don’t want to use “Mr. Gruff” to illustrate your point. The rhetoric and imagery is exaggerated for humor.
I have a Mr. Gruff coffee mug, btw.
Ha! Now that’s embarrassing.
I have a folder of shortcuts I keep for referencing to things in arguments – and that was my example of ‘Atheists are sad and unhappy’. I really liked that one precisely because it was so transparent.
Ah well. Stupid Poe’s Law.
Now I need to go get another example.
“Mr. Gruff” may be satire but there are goddists who wouldn’t recognize it as such. They’d say something to the effect “finally someone has some sensible advice for children who meet atheists.”
Someone has probably made a comment like this before but:
I think we should stop buying into the “New Atheist” label. We’ve got to not buy into to this “our leaders” mentality — it is where they want us to go.
Maybe a good move would be to expand it:
(a) “New Atheist Plus”
(b) “2nd Millenium Atheists”
or something where we include a huge list of authors, performers, educators and more that people can look at instead of focusing on 5 guys.
Comments above recommend lots of other great atheist authors. I wonder if a campaign could get started to get people to respond to anyone who talks about the “New Atheists” by saying, “You mean ‘The 2nd Millennium Atheists’ “? Or something that rings better than that possibly.
“So without asserting some sort of origin for values, using terms like “happy, moral people” (more for the “moral” than the “happy”) ultimately cedes ground to that against which atheism is supposedly in opposition”
There’s definitely something in that. One of the interesting distinguishing characteristics of ‘New Atheism’ is that old school atheists like Shaw would basically play religion at its own games, go down the same rabbit holes and just show how silly some of religion’s answers to its *own* questions were. The Dawkins approach is to say ‘before we go any further, where’s your evidence for that?’. To refuse to engage with the detail until the broad thesis is demonstrated to have merit. And I think that’s basically the way to go.
But, as you say, the theists have shifted their old tactic from ‘the existence of gods’ to ‘morality’ and we’ve not noticed that by doing that, they’ve shifted it back onto their own territory, with their rules.
Atheism has one core point to make about morality ‘morality does not and need not spring from gods’. The modern Christian, say, view of morality is that it’s basically like radio waves, with God being the only transmitter. That ‘good’ is one of the controlling forces of the universe, like gravity, and that people are, well, basically radio sets who need to be tuned in properly.
The way to engage with that is to roll your eyes. Not to say that Atheism FM is the best channel.
‘What’s the origin of moral values’ is a trick question. We’d see that if it was framed like ‘well, atheist, how would *you* suggest we get to Heaven?’ or even ‘so, if not from God, then from what source *does* all good flow?’.
‘Scientific’ just-so stories about why we think stealing is evil don’t work, even at the basic level, let alone before you get into nuance. Because ‘evil’ is a god word, not a scientific one. It’s a category error to talk about ‘the science of evil’, in the same way it would be to talk about the magic of color.
We do not know stealing is inherently evil ‘because we’re evolved from monkeys blah blah DNA’.
*We* *categorize* things *as* evil, for pragmatic reasons like ‘to enforce social order’. The universe has no opinion. And our opinions are not universal, or instinctive. To cede that point is to cede that the universe is religious in nature. There is no objective answer to ‘is this action evil?’ in the same way there is to ‘is this gas helium?’.
*That* is an important point in and of itself. It leads places, and helps us understand our morality and society more, and hopefully to hone it. What we count as stealing and how we punish various types of stealing say a great deal about us, how we are ruled and our priorities:
Understanding that *we* control morality, that all of it is negotiable, that virtually every ‘crime’ and ‘perversion’ and ‘evil’ we have has been seen as the norm, or at least not seen as worthy of punishment, or been hedged so much as to be allowed by some human community at some point makes us very different people from those who believe that laws of the land are immutable laws of physics.
‘Killing people has always been wrong in every society ever’ … no. Individuals killing people is usually seen as wrong. Texas governors can sign pieces of paper that cause the deaths of fifty times more people than Jack the Ripper and become Presidential candidates. ‘Murder’ is not the taking of life, it’s the *illegal* taking of life.
Coming up with an alternative divine commandment – ‘thou shalt not murder for the imperatives of thy DNA command it’ is doomed to fail. If we’re going to make shit up, the Christians will kick our ass every time – they’ve got ‘don’t murder because there’s this giant Santa Claus in the sky who’s son is Superman, and they won’t give you presents if you do’.
This is right on. Deus est homo. And since it’s all negotiable, how do we—as individuals, as families, communities, etc—decide how to choose a peg to hang our hat on? There is no rational way through this dilemma. It’s a problem that science cannot solve by itself.
“that morality must be grounded in an origin of sorts… I do not think that this is correct.”
It depends on what you mean by “origin.” My earlier use may have been vague, but I’m not talking about historical origins or origin as an authority, which is the sense that you seem to be using. Rather I’m referring to values that originate or arise from first principles or axioms. The essence of moral judgement is gauging the virtuousness of action, and one cannot measure without a meter stick (called a “ruler” for a very good reason!). And the problem with axioms is that the system which they define cannot be used to make statements about their validity, and they cannot be completely derived from observations made within the system. What would you propose to get around this?
[…] a good article that relates to this subject over at Freethought blogs, which inspired this […]
It sounds to me like you are trying to build a non religious religion, with all the usual trappings of the major monotheistic religions. But why? What purpose does it serve? And what moral guidance can atheists provide that are any better than any religious morals? And how can atheists offer anything like as good a comfort to people about death as religions that believe in am afterlife? By inventing some equally bullshit secular equivalent? The only logical philosophical position one can reach out of atheism and what science tells us about the world is that there is no ‘self’. So why bother with all this humanist stuff? It’s as much a falsehood as the religions you deride. Back to square one. The aims of ‘New Atheists’ seem noble, but are as hopelessly naive, as deluded, and as ultimately doomed, as those of any religion or any other previous secular movement. And I must add, the way you have addressed the subject in your article cones across as more passionate than reasonable, the product of a political and philosophical dogma rather than an enquiring, scientific mind. Answer that and stay fashionable!
The only reason we’re called the “new” atheism isn’t because we’re doing or saying anything new; It is because we’re raising our old voice a tad bit louder to match that of the new fundie evangelical (including creationist) movement that has swept over our cultures the last 40 years or so.
What does a person who shout a lot do when spoken to in a stern voice? Not less shouting.
You’ve shifted again.
The position that I thought I was arguing against is that moral axioms/values/statements/reasoning/whatever must be grounded in some specific origin – not neccesarily God but something like God, perhaps some Platonic Realm of Ideal Virtues or something else that serves a similar purpose.
But now you’ve backed off on that and penciled in ‘moral axioms’ instead.
Is it unreasonable that I find ‘no, I didn’t mean X when I said X, I actually meant Y’ a little bit frustrating? This discussion is starting to feel like I’m punching at shadows.
Anyway – talking about the use of axioms in moral reasoning is different from talking about positing an idealistic origin for those axioms as somehow necessary.
I still disagree with you a little bit, but not as strongly as before. I think that the use of axioms is a useful tool in the moral reasoning toolkit, and that any reasoner should seek to become skillful in their use.
But I do think that you’ve privileged axioms too much. Yes, it’s hard to do carpentry without a measuring tape. But it’s also hard to do carpentry if you can’t use a saw and a hammer or negotiate with your supplier for less expensive timber. There are multiple skills involved in moral reasoning.
So I think that your ‘essence of moral judgement’ is a bit off target – but only a little.
The simplest definition of morality is the functional one: Moral judgement is the process by which we select which action to perform from a set of possible actions as defined by the specific context in which that action is to take place.
Part of the selection process may well include the use of axioms, but the axioms themselves will still only be one piece of the overall whole – so the axioms themselves may be important but shouldn’t be privileged to the exclusion of everything else.
However… If we tie this all back…
Atheists do invoke axioms. A lot. There is a rich tradition of atheist thinkers that have been very concerned about morality and that invoke all kinds of axioms.
So… Was your original point about the atheistic use of axioms somehow capitulating to theists? That makes no sense. Theists don’t own moral axioms.
For example: All we need to derive the no-harm principle is enlightened self-interest. No need to invoke Gods or idealistic realms or anything of the sort. I wish I had my copy of The Portable Atheist on me so I could cite some additional examples.
Also, many atheists who used to be religious became atheists precisely because their religions themselves failed to live up to the very moral axioms which the religion itself espoused.
So… If you were mainly interested in the use of moral axioms, then how does your original comment about atheistic capitulation tie in with that?
It seems that every time you clarify your meaning your overall position gets more and more incoherent when considered in light of your previous comments.
That’s the exact opposite of what clarification is supposed to do.
I’m just confused now as to what you’ve actually been talking about from the beginning. It’s all turned to formless mush.
Carve out a position and stick to it, please.
There is a terrific debate featuring one of the brightest Christian apologists ever, Mr. William Lane Craig versus Sam Harris… check out http://www.samharris.org/debates because it is great. It is on the subject of morality, not atheism.
I took the time to read all these comments and I must say, I am impressed with this little community and covet all the great discussions! Check out my blog at http://www.atheistplayground.wordpress.com I know it’s a long name but I get into some of these same things that have obviously captivated so many here.
I include Dan Barker’s books in the New Atheism literature. I wish people read him too. He talks about values as much as anyone I have ever read.
Sorry for the length,,, but hear me out. Harris does a great job asking his audience to be objective about morality. Some ambiguity exists with the hard questions…but when we think of it as it relates to human wellbeing, the semantic illusion of morality goes away and we see what we are really talkin about. How fast should a healthy person be able to run? That may differ from person to person and things like age, height, gender etc. may factor in of course. If we saw someone vomiting blood all the time and weezing, we can all agree that the person is or at least may be sick. If you notice someone like that and offer help, it would be shocking for someone to say, “it’s just YOUR opinion. Maybe he WANTS to vomit blood. Who are YOU to say what’s healthy and what’s not.” The reason for this, as Harris says, is that “nobody ever earnestly questions the underpinnings of medical health” but when it comes to society’s health, people cry foul and beg, “who’s to say?” We are. The reasonable, rational, non-violent and educated people of the society that is trusted to elect officials and govern itself. Religion has been on base during a 2000 year game of tag and refuses to get in the game. Harris, Barker and I (and you, if you are reading this) agree it is time to level the playing field and ask the religious people to play by the same rules we do.
Daniel and Obelos: I’m a newcomer in this discussion and my aim now is very modest – what I really want is to get a better understanding of what you are aiming at (both of you).
Like Daniel, I find all this talk about axioms a bit misleading. To call something an “axiom” amounts to characterizing its role in a given proof system. Such a characterization doesn’t tell you anything about our possibilities of justifying what we have just called “an axiom”. (E.g. you can construct a system with an empirically verifiable statement playing a role of an axiom – there is no problem with that. Or you can construct a system with some of your axioms provable from other axioms – that’s also unproblematic. Or your axioms may be provable in other, quite believable, theories. Or your system can be strong enough to permit you to build a proof of validity of at least some of your axioms – oh yes, there are such cases.) So at this moment … let’s leave the axioms alone. Just some questions to both of you.
Obelos: is your point that atheist morality is ultimately “up for grabs”? Perhaps what you really want to say is this: in case of a real ethical conflict (a conflict which still remains after we are through all this tedious stuff about means and ends, contexts, decisions about who pushed whom and why) we eventually reach a stage where no further argument can possibly favour one position over another? Are you trying to claim that (1) this situation is unacceptable (2) with religion at hand, situations like that don’t happen?
Daniel: a quote from you first.
The first of these options is (roughly) religious; the second is (roughly again) utilitarian. My question is: do you think that these cases are really analogous enough for the aims of the present discussion? (Yes, I know, the answer is difficult because it’s not easy to tell what Obelos’ claims are). One could say after all: if the utilitarian option is admissible, it is admissible as one among the many (morality is ultimately “up for grabs”). On the other hand, if the religious option is admissible, then perhaps the utilitarian one is not. On this view, adopting the religious option would mean that morality is not “up for grabs” after all – if morality can indeed be given a “cosmically significant origin”, then other attempts to (re)interpret morality would seem misguided at best. To put it differently: religious approach would (perhaps! I’m not so sure about it‼!) permit you to claim that there is a fact of the matter which decides ethical conflicts, even the most stubborn ones. An utilitarian approach doesn’t give you such a perspective.
Ok, that’s all very tentative; I’m not sure at all about what I wrote. Anyway, I would be interested in seeing your answers.
“It sounds to me like you are trying to build a non religious religion, with all the usual trappings of the major monotheistic religions. But why? What purpose does it serve?”
I think there is a danger in that. What’s always funny, though, is hearing theists going ‘why make up *another* bunch of bullshit … wait, not that what we think is bullshit … d’oh!’.
“And how can atheists offer anything like as good a comfort to people about death as religions that believe in am afterlife?”
Sorry – a bit hoary, that one. Greta’s dealt with this one a couple of times. ‘He lived a good life, remember him for what he was’ is much, much more comforting than ‘he’s in Smurfland now, playing happily with Papa Smurf and Smurfette’, which is basically all Christianity peddles.
“The only logical philosophical position one can reach out of atheism and what science tells us about the world is that there is no ‘self’.”
I’m sure you can explain that, I’m equally sure that make no sense whatsoever to me.
“To put it differently: religious approach would (perhaps! I’m not so sure about it‼!) permit you to claim that there is a fact of the matter which decides ethical conflicts, even the most stubborn ones.”
This is how I’d define the difference, yes. I think that religion, or at least Christianity, is predicated on there being eternal, external ‘good’. Underwritten by an aware being. The corollary of that is that what God says is good is good.
‘The religious option’ is not ‘you can be chosen to be guided by religious tradition’, it’s that there *is* one right answer, known to at least one being and theoretically available to us.
Christians claim to have access to that ‘one right answer’. Or, if they don’t, they claim that they are able to get closer to it, or make reasonable inference. Or, at its weakest, that the goal *ought* to be to make a best guess.
But their quest is to second guess the ‘right answer’.
I think this is self-evidently absurd, from top to bottom. I think there is no better demonstration of how absurd than listening to a Catholic explaining why it makes sense:
As an atheist, I just don’t do that. I think ‘is modern art good?’ is an absurd question. Things are ‘good for’, things can be good on one scale, not good on another.
Do I believe a section of the population should be given special training and permission to rip the hearts out of children? Yes, if they’re heart surgeons. No, if they’re Aztec priests.
In practice, we *all* negotiate. What atheists don’t do, or at the very least should be careful of doing, is trying to cross check their result with some imagined ‘right answer’. And the danger of theism is that once people make their guess, they bestow on it the property of ‘God’s right answer’.
Also, when it comes to ‘axioms’, the only issue under discussion is whether ‘God exists’ is axiomatic. What the atheist axioms may or may not be isn’t relevant to the discussion.
Even Christians who have doubts still treat ‘God exists’ as axiomatic. ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ is predicated on the idea that God exists. If you go down that rabbit hole, you become God’s defense lawyer, you tie yourself in knots explaining that, yes, he could have saved that baby from that fire, but …
It’s a trap, if you’re an atheist. It forces you into a mindset where you have to imagine what you’d do if you were a god. You end up playing *their* game, and it’s a foolish one. Instead of wasting your time doing any of that shit, spend that time designing and installing better smoke alarms.
If you want an atheist axiom, then ‘”God exists” is not axiomatic’. That’s the only one.
Steve, I think it’s telling that the language you replied to my first point with suggests you think I’m a theist. I’m not, I’m an atheist. What makes me laugh is that many atheists are so sure of the truth of what they say, they forget to apply reasoning to the idea of truth itself. Does it actually matter what is true? You assume too much by saying that it does. In answer to your last point, evolutionary science, studies ofconsciosness, and the fundamentally true idea that we are just ways for our genes to get about, must lead to the conclusion that we have no ‘free will’, a Socratic concept embraced by religions like Christianity, and now embraced by secular humanists. After all, we have no souls do we? No! The ‘self’ is a mental construct, an illusion that helped humans evolve. A bit like God really. The delusion of God is only an extension of the delusion of self. There is nothing special about humans, and nothing but homocentric arrogance in atheist claims that truth, reason and science are the only valid expressions or aims of the species, or that we have any volition in our dominance over the world, or any chance of succes in controlling our own fate. Different flavour, same flying spaghetti.
Neither. I’m saying 3) this no longer functions as “morality” in a meaningful way. It becomes a plurality of contending cultural norms, not an objective gauge of propriety.
Morality forms the framework for a system of values intended to guide behavior. That framework is defined by axiomatic first principles. This is a problem for both theists and atheists because of the implicit universalism of contending a moral standard, but for different reasons. For the theist (in particular, monotheists), they address the universality by claiming that “god says so.” The error of this is that it amounts to an appeal to authority while posing as observable fact.
For atheists, the problem is that there is no means of addressing the universality—thus undermining the ultimate traditional purpose of morality—without positing axioms, but there’s no authority to fallaciously pin them on. It dissolves into relativity, and thus all moral statements ultimately become personal and not a proper morality at all. There is ambition to derive “scientific” first principles which can be used to construct, but I contend that these efforts will all fail because they require something which science cannot derive; first principles are not reasonable. Ultimately they all posit untestable first principles, even if the people proposing them don’t realize it. For example, Daniel demonstrates his continued misunderstanding of all of this with his references to “enlightened self-interest” and “no harm principle.” Those are completely arbitrary suppositions posing as “natural law” or some such. They are personal values dressed up in universal clothing.
Relatedly, there’s a discussion on Camels with Hammers that touches on these subjects. I’m still working to wrap my head around the distinction between object, relative, and plural morality that he’s elaborating in that piece.
Chris @ #50 and #58:
Forming a community is not the same as forming a religion. Communities form around all sorts of shared activities, ideas, and values.
And yes, I understand that the self is a construct of the brain and the mind. That’s the not same as saying it’s an illusion. Emotions and thoughts are also constructs of the brain and the mind. They still exist. It would be an illusion to think that the self exists separate from the brain and the mind… but I don’t think that.
Ditto meaning. Yes, I understand, and other humanists understand, that meaning doesn’t have an external source, and is something we create. That doesn’t make it unreal, or un-meaningful.
And I fail to see how passion and reason are automatically antithetical.
Thank you for sharing. [turns on cobalt blue stiletto heel to talk to someone else]
Thanks for the reply. Also, nice shoes! I would argue that meaning created by humans is exactly what religion is, and what your humanism is. Something doesn’t need god in order to be untrue. You are saying you want to base some kind of morality on made up values, so to then criticise religions seems a little hypocritical and, dare I say it, unreasonable. Also, as I’ve already stated somewhere above, there is nothing in philosophy or science that gives truth a higher value than untruth, or that says we could derive better morals- or a better way of living- from truth and reason than from religion. At best, the morals you adopt would be a continuation of the moral codes we already have, gained from a couple of thousand years of religious domination.
“Steve, I think it’s telling that the language you replied to my first point with suggests you think I’m a theist.”
Well, point of order, no I didn’t. I was just noting that when theists screech ‘atheism’s just another religion and religions are for loonies!’, they don’t seem to understand why it might not be the best insult for them to throw around.
“What makes me laugh is that many atheists are so sure of the truth of what they say, they forget to apply reasoning to the idea of truth itself. Does it actually matter what is true? You assume too much by saying that it does.”
OK. Here’s the problem I’m trying to highlight: so much of the language of ‘good’, ‘morality’, ‘truth’ and philosophy generally comes from a religious heritage and it’s very easy to be railroaded by those words into a religious mindset. ‘What is the origin of morality?’ or ‘what are the eternal truths?’ are essentially coded (Christian) religious questions. ‘Free will’ is another. Do I think we have ‘free will’? No, I don’t think the concept makes any sense outside a religious framework. I don’t think there’s ‘evil’, I do think there’s ‘suffering’.
“In answer to your last point, evolutionary science, studies ofconsciosness, and the fundamentally true idea that we are just ways for our genes to get about, must lead to the conclusion that we have no ‘free will’,”
Bullshit. It leads to the conclusion that free will *defined by religion as something god-given somehow linked to whether we’ll go to Heaven* can’t exist.
“The ‘self’ is a mental construct, an illusion that helped humans evolve.”
Well, yes, in the sense that the Mona Lisa is ‘some paint and a bit of board’.
Self-evidently, we believe we have choices. We may be wrong and the universe may be entirely deterministic … but we can operate as though it isn’t, and that’s practically the same as saying it isn’t.
Personally, I’d say that a universe created, maintained and utterly known by an omnipotent, omniscient being is far more ‘deterministic’ than a purely materialistic one where we’re lumps of mud who sit up and have a bit of a look round for a few decades before going back to being mud.
‘There are no choices’ is not an inevitable consequence of atheism. God didn’t grant us free will, that doesn’t mean we have to be robots.
“Yes, I understand, and other humanists understand, that meaning doesn’t have an external source, and is something we create. That doesn’t make it unreal, or un-meaningful.”
Simplest way to put this – if someone firebombs a family planning clinic because he thinks God opposes abortion, it doesn’t really matter if God exists or not.
But all values are made up. Creating a morality can ONLY be done with made up values, because they are all made up. The values that tend to exist in religion are not all bad, but because they tend to be focused on another life or some supernatural thing, they are generally anti-this-life, and therefore ultimately harmful in many ways. Creating moral systems with our (made up) values while being critical of religion is not only not hypocritical, it is in fact the best way to do it. religion offers no help in this creation, so discard it and show why it is not helpful if you like.
The idea that truth is better than untruth is an axiom. If you don’t accept it, you have no inclination to do either philosophy or science, because these are tools for distinguishing between them. Your statement here is no more to the point that there is nothing in cookbooks or recipes that gives deliciousness a higher value than disgustingness. If you don’t assume that good food is better than not good food, you won’t use cookbooks. If you don’t accept that truth is better than untruth, then I’m not going to talk with you about philosophy or science.
You may be interested in this post from my own blog about values, humanism, and atheism. Many of our humanist values are still tied up in religious ideas, and I think that we do need some more time to allow these sets of values to separate before moving forward. Not that there will not always be some overlap (religion is a human creation, after all), but that sometimes we don’t realize how much we’ve been influenced.
“Something doesn’t need god in order to be untrue. You are saying you want to base some kind of morality on made up values”
Those statements don’t follow.
What Greta is saying is that ‘morality’ is rarely (never?) so simple it can be boiled down to a series of ‘true/untrue’ statements.
We can tie some statements to definitional truth. A triangle does not have four sides. For that matter, Abortion (which is legal) is not murder (which is, by definition, illegal).
But you’d have to be a pretty long way along the loony spectrum to think that ‘marriage’ was a word like ‘triangle’. Or to fail to understand that ‘thou shalt not kill’ and ‘thou shalt not do murder’ are not the same thing.
Just think about this at a local level. If I want coffee and my wife wants coffee, we can agree that it is desirable that coffee is somehow acquired. We don’t need to invoke the gods to decide that coffee is a virtue or that God wants coffee or that we should fly the planes into the building of the nearest teashop for blasphemy. There is absolutely no universal truth to be derived.
To the first approximation, when we consider the size and age of the universe, my wife and I are operating on the same scale as the entire human community. If every human being on the planet, since the first ones and until the last ones, decided that it was ‘true’ that you should shave your head, it wouldn’t make it ‘universally true’, and it would be astonishing arrogance to think it did. If there are ‘universal truths’, I doubt they apply above the subatomic level.
shaunphilly @ #64: Do you think “evolved” is the same thing as “made up”?
There is beginning to be strong evidence that human beings have a few basic moral values that are common across different cultures and historical periods. If I recall correctly, they are currently thought to be: harm, justice/ fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. (There are some who think honesty should be added to the list, and there are some other candidates as well.) The hypothesis — and it is still just a hypothesis, there’s strong evidence supporting it but it’s still in the early stages — is that these basic moral values evolved as part of our mental wiring as a social species. Different cultures and individuals interpret and prioritize these values differently, of course… but everyone who isn’t a sociopath seems to have all of them, at least to some degree.
If this turns out to be the case, would you still say that these moral axioms are “made up”?
“but everyone who isn’t a sociopath seems to have all of them, at least to some degree.”
Morality by democracy!
But on the larger scale, no, that doesn’t crown these dispositions as “morals” any more than having one arm is “immoral” because it’s unusual/maladaptive/aberrant.
No. Morality by evolution.
And the point is that, if this hypothesis is correct, then moral axioms are neither (a) entirely relative or (b) created by God. They are an observable, biological phenomenon in the human species. Just like arms are… even though not everyone has them.
“And the point is that, if this hypothesis is correct, then moral axioms are neither (a) entirely relative or (b) created by God.”
This is entirely correct except for the part about blessing them as “moral axioms.” They are a collection of phenotypic expressions which favor their genotype vehicle with the ability to participate in a particular survival strategy which enables them to propagate through time (assuming, of course, the vehicle manages to copy it genes into offspring, a behavior which is in this definition of morality the absolute foundation of proper behavior). Why does the popularity of a strategy matter, though? Is the hawk “immoral” because there are fewer of them than there are doves? Hawks persist through time just as surely as do the doves.
I will make a distinction between things we create through our conscious/unconscious efforts and things that are part of our set which we inherit through evolution. As sociopaths aside, we do seem to share a large amount of feelings and values which inform how we think about morality; it’s one of the reasons we have so many similarities in religious ideas, both moral and otherwise.
To be honest, I was not thinking about that when I wrote that comment earlier, but am aware of some of said research. Now that I think about it, I am not sure exactly how to parse all that out, but allow me to throw this out there.
Having evolved values which we share with most other humans us more like a god-given value than it is like a value derived by pure fiat. It is unlike god-given values in that they are not really intentionally created nor do they have a divine consequence attached to them. But they are still made up in the sense that they are not part of the nature of the universe before some sentient thing can utilize them (unless we want to get uber-philosophical and say that all events in space-time are part of the nature of the universe in some quasi-neoplatonic way). That is, they are things added to the universe with sentience, not something that sentient beings can find in the universe itself as part of the universe’s nature (in some Platonic sense). We have to find them in our inter-relations with each other.
I also wonder to what extent we can draw distinctions between general shared values (such as justice/fairness) and particular desires for such things. Is my value of fairness the same as another person’s value of fairness, or is the relationship more about the root feeling of fairness which develops in people differently. That latter seems more likely to me, and what I have read seems to support this. This leaves more room for values having a little more “made up” quality.
Perhaps that might help show how I am thinking about this issue.
Obelos: You said yourself (#59) that “Morality forms the framework for a system of values intended to guide behavior. That framework is defined by axiomatic first principles.” This core set of evolved axioms would seem to fit that definition neatly. Why do they not count as morality, according to your own definition?
It seems to me (and to the people I’ve read who know more about this hypothesis than I do) to be a combination of both. We start with core moral axioms that we evolved with as a social species. Some of us prioritize some of these axioms over others (are these priorities learned, born into us as part of our individual genetic wiring, or both? I don’t think we know yet). We then take those moral axioms and decide how to interpret them in our own lives: based on what we’re taught by our families and cultures, and based on our own experiences and observations. So part of it is a core of axioms we start with, and part of it is “made up,” if by “made up” you mean that we decide for ourselves how to interpret those axioms.
I’m getting all annoyed at Orbelos for not explaining emself well and here I’ve gone and done the exact same thing myself. Lessons in humility, eh?
All those examples were intended to illustrate was that starting out with preconceptions about what morality should look like as if by definition can constrain our thinking in unhelpful ways.
I didn’t intend to argue for or against either of those positions explicitly.
I’m trying to avoid getting into what my position actually is. My concern is about avoiding preconceptions than championing my own cause.
But it looks like people are going to keep on trying to look for that cause, so: Cards on the table time.
Morality should not be determined in advance of a situation. It should be determined by the situation as it arises.
The context will determine the possible actions, an appropriate selection moral framework or frameworks, the values to be pursued, any axioms in play, and of course the information that will go into forming an informed argument regarding which action to take.
In this sense, I don’t think any one moral framework, value (or set of values) or axiom (or set of axioms) are The One True Morality that can be expected to apply to all contexts.
But I do think it is still possible to pin down that there is a justifiably right thing to do in each context – but that the right thing to do will be determined by the context.
So the same action may be right or wrong depending on the context in which that action arises – but not arbitrarily so.
This ties back into my original concern that we shouldn’t tie ourselves down to one particular moral system as if that were the only kind of system that is possible by definition. Because if the only way ‘morality’ can be conceived of is utilitarianism (say) then this will cause us to fail to consider consequentialism (for example) when a given context might have been better resolved by a consequentialist approach.
I don’t have a label for this.
It isn’t absolutism, because I don’t think that any one moral system should apply all of the time. But at the same time it isn’t relativism, because I do think that there is a right thing to that is determined in large part by fixed and objective properties of the context.
So I’m sort of absolute, and sort of relative, so kind of both, but also neither.
If I was going to come up with a label I would call this a kairic stance on morality – from the Greek root kairos (as employed by Pythagoras, meaning the right thing at the right time). But that’s pretentious – there’s got to be a word for this already, so there’s no need to go coining new ones.
I don’t understand how different it is from what I said apart from the choice of words. Instead of “plurality of moral systems is unacceptable” you prefer the wording “this is not a meaningful morality”. Doesn’t matter, the intended meaning is the same. So your problem is: you want to have universally valid moral norms, only you don’t know how and in what sense they can be universally valid. Yes, I’m sympathetic. I feel also that there is not much hope for you in this ambitious enterprise.
I’m afraid that won’t satisfy people like Obelos. Even if correct, that would work only on a descriptive level. It would be a description of the genesis of morality, not its justification. It seems to me that Obelos – together with many people (he is definitely not alone) – wants an answer to questions like “why shouldn’t I steal, why shouldn’t I commit murders …”; moreover, they want an answer that would be universally compelling, convincing to every reasonable person. I wish them good luck … with bad conscience, because I don’t think they will have it.
Your criteria are arbitrary and do not match your cherry-picked set of “moral” behaviors. You cite evolutionary success as the signal which leads us to a common morality, yet you arbitrarily choose only a subset of those successes as well as an arbitrary subset of evolutionarily-selected resulting behaviors which fit your personal predilections. Sociopaths are the product of billions of years of natural and sexual selection just the same as “moral” people. There may be fewer of them, but that’s the difference between K and r selection strategies. The real test of evolutionary success is duration, not quantity.
Just to clarify my enterprise, I’m not personally looking for an objective morality. I’d rather hunt snipes while remaining my happily immoral self. But I make this point because I don’t think it’s sensible to say “We are good, moral people” without it, and because I value people taking personal ownership of their values enough that it’s worth my time to occasionally argue about it.
Yes, I think that is reasonable. I will look forward to more research on this to come to light, of course.
You are looking, it seems, for a universal or Platonic source for value. There is no such thing. The values that we are talking about, whether they are shared by most people through evolution or derived through emotion/logic are not going to meet that standard, because nothing can; it’s an illusory standard. But our choices of what to value (insofar as we do choose them) are not merely arbitrary; other choices would not be merely equal in value to us. They are based upon a number of things, whether enlightened self interest, mirror-neurons, or actual care for other people.
If you don’t, of course, care for other human beings and are primarily selfish (btw, selfishness is not necessarily a bad thing), then you will find yourself frustrated by many others’ insistence of having actual inclinations to behave in ways that seem to indicate we are operating my some universal law or rule. You may then try and point out how we are trying to base our actions on some universal set of values while claiming there is no such thing. But that would be missing the experience of having those values that cause the formation of moral behavior.
I’ve had so many conversations with Randian philosophizers, libertarians, and other people who seem to not get this, and I wonder if I’m not sometimes talking with sociopaths. It seems to simple, to me.
Obelos: You misunderstand me. I’m going to try again.
Morality is a set of principles guiding what we think we ought and ought not to do. And I’m saying that morality is an observable, biological human phenomenon that exists across cultures and historical eras. Some people are lacking in it, but some people are lacking in arms as well… and arms are still an observable, biological human phenomenon that exists across cultures and historical eras.
That is not arbitrary, nor is it cherry-picking. It’s based on observation and research. And it’s consistent with your own definition of morality.
It seems, as Ariel says, that you’re trying to get a definition of morality and/or a set of core moral values that can be deduced purely rationally without starting with some first principles; you’re saying that nothing can be deduced purely rationally without starting with some first principles; and therefore morality is meaningless and/or irrational.
Well, if that’s how you’re now defining morality… then yes. But that’s not a very useful definition of morality, and it’s not even the one you yourself gave at #59. Yes, you can define morality out of existence. You can define anything out of existence. So what?
I’m sorry; I sent my last post before I saw your reply. It’s very late here where I am, I’m tired and not thinking very clearly, so just one last question. Oh well, maybe more than one 🙂 Do you think that contexts uniquely determine a justifiably right thing to do? And perhaps also: what do you mean by “context”? If I’m a religious fanatic believing that killing our wonderful Greta Christina is the proper thing to do (please forgive me, Greta), is my belief a part of the “context” to be taken into account in the calculation of what is right for me to do? If so, how should it be taken into account and with what effect? If no, why?
(Yes, I know that it’s easier to ask questions than to give answers. Unfortunately, I have very few answers to offer :-()
Heh. This is why I didn’t want to get into the specifics of what I believe. Right now I don’t really want to try and persuade anyone to agree with me – and conversely, I’m not hugely interested in defending my position either. There’s a time and a place for that obviously – but right now I’m not really in the mood.
That said, I don’t mind answering questions for the sake of clarity.
If we want to get technical:
* Possible Actions (Set of Actions)
* Right Actions (Set of Actions)
Each context will have one-and-only-one action set of all the possible actions and one-and-only-one action set of all the right actions.
The set of right actions will always be a sub-set of the set of possible actions.
The set of possible actions will have two-or-more actions inside of it (if there is only one possible action then there is no moral choice to make, and our moral reasoning is moot).
Technically the set of right actions will have one-or-more actions inside of it. However, I have a very strong expectation that the set of right actions will usually only have one element. I just don’t want to tie myself down on that in the framework itself.
For the sake of brevity I’ll tend to use the term ‘the right action’ for a given context – but that’s just short-hand for ‘the set of very probably one-and-only-one right actions’ because that would get exhausting to read/write every single time I refer to the concept.
I want to use the term ‘Context’ in the broadest possible sense of the term.
Quick definition would be: Everything and anything of interest to the evaluation of what actions are possible and which of those actions is the right one to perform.
I know that’s vague – perhaps irritatingly so. But anything more precise could exclude something that I might have intended to catch.
How large a part? Well – that depends on the rest of the context.
If you’re going to kill Greta for blasphemy against religion in her writing, then the context will also include the wider history of discussion about freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. It will also include the fact that in Greta’s country of residence her actions are not considered criminal offenses such that killing her would make you an international criminal.
In that context the freedom of conscience and expression is a higher principle than a religious prescription to kill another human being. So despite your beliefs about religious matters, killing her would still be wrong.
If your religion gives you no option but to commit murder – then that is just another evil at the feet of your religion and a mark against you for following that religion in the first place.
But then again, if the context were different…
1) If Greta was about to kill your baby (in order to eat it) and;
2) You had a religious prescription to defend your children with the minimum required force up to and including killing the attacker, and;
3) Greta was determined enough in her attack on your child that killing Greta is the minimum required force (because she’s just that hungry for baby-flesh – or possibly she had succumbed to the zombie apocalypse, either one)
… then in that situation the wider context of Greta’s ravenous intentions towards your child would then make your religious prescription seem much more reasonable by association with existing principles. We have a discourse around the restrained application of violence in defense of self, the defenseless, innocents and loved ones – and that’s relevant part of the context too.
So yes. Your religious beliefs are part of the context. But only one part – the context is much, much larger than your own perspective.
Perhaps what you’re looking for is something like this: In my view, if you make a bad decision due to ignorance of the greater context, it is still a bad decision. Ignorance of the context neither justifies nor excuses a bad decision.
Is anyone else now completely in love with the image of Zombie Greta going on a baby-eating rampage? Someone should make that into a meme.
This analogy made me spit my latte onto my desk.
Why can’t philosophy always be like this?
” And I’m saying that morality is an observable, biological human phenomenon that exists across cultures and historical eras.”
Greta, if this is the case then what need is there to define morality at all? We may as well just let this natural human morality go on. But with it we would also have to put up with human immorality.
But if we decide to find moral axioms among the mess of human history, I think they would be rather vague. To argue up from these we would have to make up a lot of our own stuff if we wanted to form a workable moral framework. Christians did/do this by looking to the ‘higher power’ of God to justify what they decide. What shall we look at? Scientific progress perhaps? Science can tell us how the world works, but it has no moral dimension. The morality of science depends on the human using it. Or should we look to evolution as a guide? No. Looking to nature as a guide to ‘right & wrong’ has long been considered a logical fallacy- and besides, looking to evolutionary theory to provide moral guidance/justification is what Hitler did, and that’s not the sort of world we want to live in. Or is it?
Also, to comment on what you said about an idea being ‘useful’ (sorry, can’t find the comment now so not sure of exact context/wording), surely that shouldn’t matter? In science we don’t disregard a fact or an observation because it isn’t ‘useful’. Why should that be any different here?
I personally see the whole concept of a universal moral framework as being a religious concept, and something that would have seemed crazy to many pre-monotheistic societies. It seems that this idea of replacing religions with reason is impossible without a few unreasonable leaps of faith of our own. Out of the wilderness of human history we could dredge all manner of possible moral aims for society: progress, a return to hunter-gathering, a sustainable technologically supported world, dog eat dog, biophilic society… the list is endless. The morals we decide to choose to fill in the gaps left by religion (as if that’s going to happen!) are a matter of faith, or at least blind hope. Therefore, how are they superior to the naturally evolved religious moralities of the past? Decisions on human morality made by atheist scientists (or their political/corporate masters) will, in reality, be as clueless and self-serving as those made by religious leaders (or their political/corporate masters) in the past.
From a moral perspective we are all operating in the dark, and any glimmers of light we seem to see are as likely to be reflections of our need for personal/group survival as they are reflections of some kind of natural moral goodness. Your reasoning is as likely to lead to atrocities as it is peace. On this basis I think you would be better off giving up this moral quest to which there is no scientific solution- but if it gives you hope, go for it. Personally, I can do without religion, or have done so far.
Ok, thanks. There are still lots of questions here (as you probably know for yourself), but I guess you are right that everything has its time and place.
Better not. With all these girls around spitting latte – who knows what it would end with??‼
[walks away with dignity, locking himself safely is an ivory lecture room]
“Morality is a set of principles guiding what we think we ought and ought not to do. And I’m saying that morality is an observable, biological human phenomenon that exists across cultures and historical eras.”
All human beings have a sense of right and wrong. What we don’t have is the ability to all agree on whether a specific activity is right or wrong. Vast resources are spent on religions, legal and political structures to determine local consensus and have a mechanism for dispute resolution. Everyone would probably agree on ‘all people have a sense of right and wrong’, but would immediately follow it with ‘but in some people, not including myself, that sense is screwed up bad’.
Humans instinctively understand that there’s nuance. We have a sense of right and wrong – and throughout history, from Robin Hood, to Les Miserables to Judge Dredd, we’ve told stories about how monolithic justice systems that relentlessly pursue every crime are evil, not good.
The religious (Christian) view is that we could, in theory, just ask God and he’d tell us. That ‘is gay marriage good?’ is a question that can be answered like ‘does 2+2=4?’. That there is a being capable of making perfect moral judgments, to the point that he can, perfectly fairly, look at a life and decide whether it deserves an eternity of heaven or of hell.
(aesthetically, that, to me, makes us all Valjean, it makes God into a tyrant. But to a Christian, that’s like saying oxygen is a tyrant for making us breathe it).
That requires our ‘sense of right and wrong’ to be a sense that is *detecting* rightness and wrongness, in the way that ears detect sound. It’s top-down. Good and evil become external forces. Morality becomes like music appreciation. And, in that scheme, an atheist basically is missing something that means they *can* never appreciate morality fully.
I don’t believe that. I don’t think it’s even particularly helpful to pretend it’s that. In practice, no one acts that way, anyway. At which point I always start wondering how this religion scam is still going. And the answer is ‘because navigating morality is complicated and we’ll try all sorts of maps’.
So we can agree all humans ‘have morality’, but it doesn’t help, because the next thing that happens is either we disagree why, or we disagree about how it applies to a particular issue. Knowing we all have a moral sense doesn’t mean we know if the death penalty, say, is moral or not.
“And I’m saying that morality is an observable, biological human phenomenon that exists across cultures and historical eras.”
Okay, so you are saying that science can tell us first principles. I’m not sure what you meant, then, by saying “I don’t know anyone who says science can create values.”
“That is not arbitrary, nor is it cherry-picking. It’s based on observation and research. ”
It is cherry-picking because you’re drawing a line in the sand between “normal” and “aberrant” on a quantitative basis rather than a qualitative one. Setting that quantitative threshold (“Well, nearly all people do x”) in one place and not another is arbitrary and axiomatic. It is used to gerrymander normative behavior.
“But that’s not a very useful definition of morality”
That’s actually a classic definition of morality, unperverted by quantitative sociology. The fact that it’s not very useful is the whole point I’m making, which is that it’s fruitless for an atheist to identify as “moral” because it rests on attempting to beat the theists at their own game.
“and it’s not even the one you yourself gave at #59.”
Sure it is. I said all moral systems rely on universal axioms. The problem is that theists rely on logical fallacy to support them while atheists pretend that science says they’re valid.
Well put Obelos. This has been an interesting discussion to read and contribute to, I’m glad I stumbled on it. Thanks.
“I said all moral systems rely on universal axioms.”
I’m not sure they do. I do think they tend to assert they are, but that’s like a politician saying ‘there’s no other way’ – if there was ‘no other way’, then why make a speech about it?
I think the challenge is to find a axiom that takes the form ‘X is right/wrong’ that isn’t immediate hedged into not being an axiom at all. ‘Killing is wrong’, for example … OK, you only mean people, OK you only mean nice people, OK you only mean babies, OK you only mean babies but abortion’s fine.
If so, there is a (relatively recent) standpoint in ethics which might be suitable to you. It is called “moral fictionalism”; one of the main proponents is Richard Joyce (his book “The myth of morality” from 2001). In short the standpoint is: moral principles are false, but they are useful. (So useful in fact that … hush! Don’t tell anyone that they are false! Unless of course you want to have a prestigious publication, in which case gains may prevail over costs :-)).
As far as I can see, it generated a lot of discussions in the philosophical literature. Maybe it would be a good idea for you to check it.
“Universal” in my usage meaning that it applies equally to everyone, not in the sense that the implications of axioms don’t perturb one another (which introduces another set of problems).
This “MacGuffin theory of morality” does look like a idea worth a bit of investigation. Thank you for the reference. In a similar vein, you may have an interest in reading Deleuze’s “Nietzsche and Philosophy” which includes an exploration of morality from the perspective that the moral life consists of the process of asserting values as an act of affirming difference, “difference” being the very essence of life and the will to power. The content of the values themselves matter not so much as the act of imposing them.
I’m confused. Why do you think it’s your prerogative to define what “morality” means to all people at all times?
Morality, like almost every other word you’ve ever learned, was learned by immersion in a culture of language use, not by studiously reading a dictionary. Because the way words are primarily learned is intuitive rather than rational, the precise meanings of words are fuzzy. This is quite easy to see by checking successive editions of a dictionary — the most important definitions of words change over time, and new definitions are added all the time.
So while you might want morality to mean (and only mean) “a system of correct and incorrect behaviors inferred from some set of axioms,” that doesn’t mean that it’s what it means to other people, or what it should mean to other people, etc. You’re not Academie Anglaise (there is no such body). You don’t get to decide what words mean.
If you actually pay attention to what words mean, people use “morality” to refer in a common-sense way to the rightness and wrongness, essentially the desirability and undesirability, of certain behaviors. You act as though not having a common set of axioms on this is somehow a problem for atheists that has never arisen for any other group of people in the history of the world, but that’s ridiculous. The Roman empire, just as one example, held dominion over thousands of different peoples with as many different religions — in a time when religion was not sufficiently intellectualized for most of these religions to have axiomatic moral codes.
In other words, the “problem” you’re seeing with atheist morality has existed ever since two groups with different religions found themselves living in the same place.
It’s clear to me that if atheists want to talk about ethics we have to use the common sense language of morality. Your high-falutin’ objections are noted but rejected as being irrelevant as anything but weird, personal (on your part) semantic hairsplitting.
@ Dan L
Coincidentally, I just did a little post (with lots of pics) illustrating your point to some degree. I did it because I find this language issue is common obstacle on on-line discussions.
Great discussion here — I am enjoying the morality ride!
Looks very interesting. I’ll see if I can get a chance to check in, I had a little thought experiment that looks very relevant to some of your examples that I’ll try to share in the comments there.
“In other words, the “problem” you’re seeing with atheist morality has existed ever since two groups with different religions found themselves living in the same place.”
I’m sorry. I thought we were talking about a scientific approach to morality since that’s the theme of this post. So you’re saying it’s more like teaching both sides of the human origins story in science classrooms: evolution and creation.
If you want to abide by the colloquial usage of the term “moral” as intended to communicate something to the segment of the population which is disposed to think of atheists as not being such, then you’re just wrong or at least sloppy. It doesn’t matter that atheists aren’t really a bunch psychopaths anxiously waiting for their next opportunity to victimize the next innocent that has the misfortune of passing by. They are still fornicating, baby-killing, god-hating, elitist, commie sodomites who are bent on bringing down this great country with the stink of decadence and moral decay. According to the standard of the person you’re trying to convince, no, atheists are not moral people. And they never will be. Calling yourself “moral” isn’t fooling anyone. Atheists actively lobby for some of the most immoral behaviors there are, often priding themselves on how offensive it is to many good, godly people!
It may be possible to convince these people that atheists’ ungodly behavior should still be legal and is a matter of individual choice. That’s possible. But telling them you’re a “happy, moral person” who is married to your same-sex partner, votes pro-choice, supports social equity et al isn’t going to do jack.
I think I’m beginning to understand where you are coming from (after following these comments with great interest): using a term heralded by the theist sector to apply to their own behavior and beliefs is counter-productive. Should we then be better to say that Theists have morals and Atheists have ethics? We have to have some way to calculate and encourage positive behavior as opposed to damaging behavior, if we don’t call this “morality” then what can we call atheist positive personal and community behavior that is both acceptable to theists and also demonstrates that we aren’t all ruthless baby killers out to corrupt the youth of American with our luciferian lies? I’ve read The Moral Landscape and there may be the potential for establishing such behaviors on the basis of science.
No, it’s not the theme of this post. It’s the theme of your derail.
The theme of this post is, pretty obviously, “Can Critics of ‘New Atheists’ Please Read Some First?” This is a question I find myself pondering frequently, which was what compelled me to read it in the first place. I don’t want to speak for Greta, but I see nothing in the post to imply that she’s advocating any particular view of morality; she’s simply saying that it’s something “new atheists” are talking about — contrary to what their critics say.
I’m not trying to “abide by the colloquial usage of the term ‘moral’…”. I’m pointing out that there is no one colloquial usage of the word ‘moral’ and hasn’t been since the beginning of human culture. What you say is true enough — the less than 20% of the USA that is rabidly fundamentalist won’t ever like me and won’t ever assent to my values. So what? They don’t get to define what “moral” means any more than you do. And there’s plenty of Americans — probably close to the other 80% — that believe in secular government. Many of them probably have a problem with atheism, but they’ve agreed to live and let live as part of the social contract. These are people willing to acknowledge that atheists are moral, and willing to talk about what that means for morality in general.
I don’t need to convince the fringe idiots of anything, they’re doing a fine job of alienating their children already. I need to convince the reasonable people who don’t understand atheism. They might think morality is religiously derived, but probably only because they haven’t really thought about it before. The last thing I’m going to say to them is “atheists are immoral,” (or even amoral) especially since that’s not how I use the word “moral” and definitely not what I see looking at atheists in the real world.
I should say that’s what I read her as saying.
Dan L. @ #94: Yup, that pretty much sums it up. But it’s a reasonably interesting derail, and a fair number of people seem to be interested in it, and people have been pursuing it with a fair degree of civility. So while it is a derail, I’m not going to worry about that. I don’t expect all comment threads to stay 100% on topic, or even 50% on topic.
Obelos @ #92: Which person are we talking about?
Yes, there are hard-core religious extremists who will be very difficult to convince that atheists are moral, because the details of their moral code play out very differently from the details of the moral codes of most atheists. But that’s not true for all believers. There are plenty of progressive, moderate, and even conservative- but- not-extremist religious believers who are persuadable, and who can be shown that atheists are moral/ ethical/ good/ whatever word you want to use.
And I don’t think it makes sense to try to persuade them by ceding the words “moral” and “morality” to religion. I think it makes sense to point out that we do, in fact, share many of the same basic moral values that they do: fairness, not doing harm, loyalty, etc. In fact, if you talk to atheists who are former believers, even former extremist believers, you’ll find that for many of them, part of their process of deconversion was seeing that myths about atheists are not true, and that atheists can be good, happy people.
There’s a common thought experiment that many atheists do with believers. We ask them, “If you could be persuaded today, with 100% certainty, that there was no God… would you start robbing and raping and killing?” If they say “No,” as most of them do, this is an excellent way of showing that whatever morality is, it is not dependent on religion, and whatever it is, atheists have it.
Again, to bring it back to the original point of this post: Gary Gutting accuses atheists of being insufficiently interested in offering secular alternatives to religious culture, including religious morality. My original point was that we spend a great deal of time doing exactly that. And this comment thread is, in fact, an excellent example. We’ve spent close to 100 comments discussing what, exactly, an atheist morality might or might not consist of. This is a topic that concerns us greatly, and that we focus a lot of time and attention on, both in how we show ourselves to believers and in our own internal conversations and debates.
Yes, I figured you’d take care of it if you had a problem with it. Just wanted to point out to Obelos that I’m not the one going off topic since he seemed to be saying that I was. I did go on to address his actual arguments to me (hopefully with a fair degree of civility).
Since when is it incumbent on any atheist, old or new, to show that atheism can act as a surrogate for religion before it is valid? The whole point is that atheism is NOT a religion, and makes no claim to fulfill any of the roles of one. The role of new atheists is to point out that faith-based claims are not supported…full stop. From there, theists can get on with trying to justify their cultish superstitions only on the basis that they make people happy. I wish them luck with that effort. Robbed of its claims to scientific truth, religion quickly becomes too irrelevant to bother with for most people.
“If they say “No,” as most of them do, this is an excellent way of showing that whatever morality is, it is not dependent on religion, and whatever it is, atheists have it”
That’s interesting. I’ve asked that, and I usually get ‘I’m not sure’ and ‘I might not, but I bet millions of others would’.
If you read Irving Kristol, that’s basically the neo-conservative intellectual position: we know this God stuff is crap, but the masses like stories that reassure them that this complicated world makes sense and they shouldn’t think too hard, and if they knew what we knew, they’d go a bit crazy.
If we’re going to talk about ‘why don’t they read some first?’, then any Tea Partier, low tax Republican or Fox News addict might want to read what some of the philosophers of their movement say – watch the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOlwbaPe2os
I concede it seems I am the one who has strayed off topic, and I am grateful for the indulgence of my divergence. I think it’s worth noting the way the morality focus became conflated in my mind with the main topic of this post extends from the apparent reliance of atheism on science to tell it everything it can possibly know about life. That seems to be the sole tack taken by atheists who are writing about trying to justify a particular approach to morality. I’m interested to see what other options arise in the future because, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t think that’s something science will ever be able to tell us. “We’re working on it” is great, and I don’t argue with that. I’m just disappointed that Harris’ religious notions of morality appear to be the cream of that process.
“In fact, if you talk to atheists who are former believers, even former extremist believers, you’ll find that for many of them, part of their process of deconversion was seeing that myths about atheists are not true, and that atheists can be good, happy people.”
This is so far removed from my personal experience of my own process and that of others I know who have renounced slavish adherence to religion that it surprises me. But then again, I didn’t turn out an atheist, so I quite possibly am not one of the people who would respond to that approach. For many people who are open to being “unconverted” from their religion, the base moral hypocrisy and ignorance of their own religious tenets embodied by the majority in the churches is enough to make them aware that the atheists couldn’t possibly be any worse!
“I concede it seems I am the one who has strayed off topic”
Greta’s blog, so Greta’s judgment call, but I don’t think ‘what atheists say about morality’ is *that* much of a straying from ‘atheists do say thing about morality’.
Atheists talk about morality, and I think we do need to scrutinize what we’re saying. I’ve read that Sam Harris book, and … I’m very worried about it. It is a very important contribution to the question, written by a very smart man (way smarter than me), but it’s by no means the final answer.
And if we lazily start assuming that every single piece of morality we have is some sort of evolutionary adaptation, then we’re replacing one ‘it’s just the way things are’ dogma with another. Five gets you ten that, like religious belief, the ‘scientific’ moral truth most people will infer about, say, homosexuality will magically conform with their existing personal belief about it.
The line here is simple: we don’t have to ask Sky Daddy for permission, we don’t have to run the numbers past the Selfish Genes, we can work these things out for ourselves. And our answers today need not be the same as people in a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand years in either direction, and that’s fine, they’ve the right to work it out for themselves, too.
“…we don’t have to run the numbers past the Selfish Genes…”
The proposition of a quantitatively derived morality is particularly disturbing. “Most organisms engage in behavior x, therefore behavior y is maladaptive” gets used to justify policies that I think most of us would describe as heinous. Arguments to this effect may as well be coming from the Pope, only he attributes “human nature” to god rather than an outcome of natural and sexual selection. The irony is that evolution, which flourishes by asserting difference, here is being used to the opposite end of enforcing a drive toward conformity.
That isn’t what I said, and it isn’t what I meant, but I no longer have the patience to try to explain myself.
Oh, and to clarify: I do think this conversation has strayed rather off-topic — but I don’t have a problem with that. Please continue, if you find it interesting.
“That isn’t what I said, and it isn’t what I meant”
No it isn’t, and I’m sorry if I’ve implied that, but it is a line that shows up:
(I *think* that’s a spoof, it’s certainly at least a little arch).
The problem with replacing ‘God says we should’ with ‘evolution and our genes demand a certain sort of behavior’ is that … well, unlike gods, evolution and genes are real. And any ‘scientific’ morality is going to be based on numbers, or logic, or at least rationality. The stuff in The Selfish Gene is pretty much pure game theory (although Dawkins has since said that being aware of game theory means we can subvert the game).
At the very least, we need to be aware that the results a game theory, rational approach throws out can often be abhorrent to actual human beings (see the Pirate Game).
There will be a huge danger if we start thinking that ‘atheist morality’ is monolithic, or if we start coalescing around Harris as our guiding light.
It’s important to note that atheists talk about morality and live moral lives … it’s very important to make it clear that doesn’t mean we *agree* what a moral life is. All we agree is that the gods aren’t the answer.
[…] and which we need to learn from religion (and through him, of course). New Atheism is the movement already uniting atheists in community and in common moral cause. We have New Atheism to thank for the increasing identity-consciousness […]
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