There IS such a thing as a Good Atheist…

In response to Rick Henderson ‘Why There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,’ and quoting him to make my responses clearer:

A worldview is your view of everything inside (and possibly outside) the universe: truth, religion, beauty, war, morality and Nickleback—everything.

Well, strictly speaking a worldview is one’s view of the world, not the universe. One’s view of the universe is epistemology and ontology. If you include truth, beauty and morality we’re then also getting into aesthetics and ethics… Also, it’s spelt ‘Nickelback.’

 

While some want to state atheism simply as a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it.

Only by inference. The word atheist, as I’m sure you know, Pastor Rick, is made up of the prefix ‘a-,’ meaning ‘without,’ and ‘theos,’ meaning ‘god.’ A lack of belief in any god does imply some other things, but it doesn’t state them. Because you’ve focused on ‘atheism’ and not ‘agnosticism’, we’re only talking about belief, not knowledge. Which is interesting, because most atheists are agnostic (no claim to knowledge), but any theist who is claiming knowledge is either lying or deluded. Please, do not take offense, I’m not saying that experience of God or the Holy Spirit doesn’t underpin your belief, I’m just pointing out that, just as eyewitness testimony is the least dependable of testimonies, so personal experience is the most open to bias, misunderstanding and mistake.

 

1. The universe is purely material.  It is strictly natural and there is no such thing as the supernatural, i.e. god or spiritual forces.

It’s a curiosity of our language, the English language, that which has only ever existed under the auspices of Christianity, that we refer to things that we implicitly believe to be the case, that which we believe to be most important, with a root word. Modifications to that root are achieved with prefixes and suffixes, and imply a modification of the norm. We have the word ‘ruthless,’ for example, where the root-word ‘ruth’ has fallen into obsolescence, but we know that because ‘ruthless’ means ‘having no compassion or pity’ that ‘ruth’ must mean ‘compassion or pity.’ It’s a shame that ‘ruth’ has fallen into disuse. The words ‘physics’ and ‘natural,’ however, have not. They have meanings that we all implicitly take to be the case. It is ‘metaphysics’ and ‘supernatural’ that extend these words beyond their intended meaning and into the realm of thinking about thinking without reference to sensibility.

 

2. The universe is scientific.  It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

Indeed. See above, with regard to physics vs. metaphysics.

 

3. The universe is impersonal.  It does not a have consciousness nor will, neither is it guided by a consciousness or will.

Indeed, and even Christians have to come to terms with this. Does describing great good fortune as ‘God’s will’, and great misfortune as ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways’ make a difference? Does putting a face on it make it any more personal? Really? Given the grossly solipsistic nature of such thinking, it is also a million miles from the humility that your Bible contradictorily demands.

 

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.

The universe IS meaningless. Just because YOU believe in a God, and use that to make the universe meaningful doesn’t stop the universe from being meaningless, but it does mean that you have managed to create meaning in a meaningless universe. We atheists just choose to create our meaning in different ways.

 

A tree falls.  A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery.  A dog barks.  A man is killed for not espousing the national religion.  These are all actions that can be known and explained, but never given any meaning or value.

Meaning is purely interpretation. Interpretation is personal, by definition. We are all persons. Ipso facto, everything has meaning, or not, as we see fit.

“A tree falls.”

Meaningless, unless it happens to fall on your car, or on the mother bear of a cub you then rescue. Then it has meaning.

“A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery.“

If you’ll pardon the tasteless pun, this is pregnant with meaning. A young girl has had her bodily-autonomy returned to her. As a fellow human nothing has more meaning. How do you, as a Christian, reconcile the belief that the lack of a jealous God changes this fact?

“A dog barks.”

That’s a curious incident, isn’t it? And if the dog barks due to your house being broken into? Meaning.

“A man is killed for not espousing the national religion.”

A sad comment on the divisiveness of religion… one of which you’re espousing.

 

A good atheist, that is a consistent atheist, recognizes this dilemma.

I’ve known many a Christian to be unhappy at being told by an atheist (i.e. me) what makes a good Christian. Like when I point out that failing to follow the teachings of Christ makes the word ‘Christian’ meaningless. I suppose I should take consolation in you allowing the words ‘good’ and ’atheist’ to appear in the same sentence

 

His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality.

False dichotomies.

Objective meaning is that which exists independently of us, but without us there’s no-one to give it meaning. Unless you allow for extra-terrestrials, in which case they’ll give it their meaning… which is still not objective, because then it’s their subjective meaning. You COULD (and indeed I would) argue that there IS an objective reality for us to discover, and it will be some combination of all of our perceptions.

Objective morality on the other hand, is an absurdity. Morality is, by definition, ‘duty, obligation and principles of conduct’[1] which speaks of behaviour between one human and another, and as such is subjective. The only claim to moral objectivity is the de facto objective morality predicated on the fact that we humans are more similar than we are different.

 

Thus, calling him good in the moral sense is nonsensical.

You had to ruin it, didn’t you?

 

There is no morally good atheist because there really is no objective morality.

Yet theocracies are collapsing under their own weight, the US included (given the Conservative Christian hand in the recent shutdown and the massive impact this had on the poorest in the US, this is hard to ignore). The most secular nations regularly lead the standard of living polls and studies (e.g. Inglehart, Foa, Peterson & Welzel, 2008[2]. Paul, 2009[3], and even Forbes([4]) placed the US (the most religious Western Nation) as the 11th happiest place to live, behind Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (amongst the most secular Western Nations).

Let’s be explicit, the US fares poorly because they trail behind the rest of industrialised nations in homicide, incarceration, juvenile (not just infant) and adult mortality (lifespans are actually shortening in parts of the Bible belt), gonorrhea, syphilis, abortion, teen pregnancy, divorce, income disparity, poverty, long work hours, and resource exploitation, they only lead in being the most religious.[5]

 

At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.

Indeed, which is why we should all be clinging to it for dear life rather than using it as a yardstick by which to beat each other. The moral hypocrisy of the US being the self-appointed world-police when their own house is in such disarray (as outline above) should be pause for thought, at the very least.

 

For those of you who think you’re about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following

Indeed, it is a strawman, and in quoting the scientists that you do, you make the same mistake that Sam Harris made in ‘The Moral Landscape’ – science tells us what to value, not how to value it. The how is a product of honest interpersonal communication.

 

Based on the non-negotiable premises of atheism these are the only logical conclusions.

Please pardon me if I offend your sensibilities with this answer: Bullshit!

 

All the atheists I’ve known personally and from afar live as if there is objective meaning and morality.  How is this explained?

As mentioned above, “The only claim to moral objectivity is the de facto objective morality predicated on the fact that we humans are more similar than we are different.” As such, despite our differences, more unites us than separates us, on almost any metric you care to choose.

 

In a Hail Mary like attempt to reconcile the inescapability of objective morality and their assurances of atheism, 2 possible answers are launched.

Sorry, but your assertion of the “inescapability of objective morality” is dismissed with the same level of evidence as it was asserted. Atheism at least is assured by the fact that of the (as many as) 28,000,000 gods[6] that man has ever dreamt up, we disbelieve in 100% of them – monotheism is a rounding error of 0.000036%.

No? OK, which of the 41,000 Christian denominations (Pew Forum[7]) are correct? Some of them say that belief in any other denomination is punishable by hellfire. Are they right? How do you know? Now that is a Hail Mary, and then some.

 

1.  Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution.

Correct. Dogs, elephants, and chimpanzees exhibit moral behaviour (De Waal, 2013[8]), and so do we, for the most part.

 

So, compassion for the dying would be immoral and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral.

Interesting that ‘compassion’ only turns up 41 times in the Bible, but ‘kill’, ‘killed’, and ‘killing’ appears 198 times[9]. Also, ‘destroy’ appears 261 times, and ‘destruction’ 94 times. It speaks poorly of your fellow Christian’s if they believe that they need to feel that they are being watched in order to behave. Do I have to bring up the endemic use of porn in the Bible belt, the relative lack of atheists in US prisons, etc., etc., etc.? Both of which (and more) put lie to the idea that people feel they are being watched and/or that this makes them better behaved.

 

Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children. Morality in this view can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans.  It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.

If we had pre-frontal cortexes the size of chimpanzees or dolphins, then yes, maybe some of this might be plausible… but even then, I doubt it. As we have moved beyond the first level moral reasoning you’re talking about (indeed, some of your examples don’t even make it up to the level of morality, let alone second order moral reasoning).

Let’s use your example to show how wrong you are. A woman birthing a large number of children is against her self interest as she won’t be able to raise them all to the point where they can fend for themselves without putting them all at risk at least some of the time. As you said “actions that are helpful to make more fit humans,” as such, women’s education must be a priority, and an emotionally traumatised multiple-rape victim is not likely to be a fit mother without a lot of support. Also, when do I point out that it is religious families that tend to be largest, and secular families that tend to err on the side of not unduly burdening the planet?

 

Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible.  Because morality is the construct of a social group it cannot extend farther than a society’s borders nor endure longer than a society’s existence.

Oh, really? What about the successful societies scale or the happiest countries polls cited earlier? The societies may make the rules, but the individuals that live in those societies are the barometers. We are more alike than we are different – significant differences in lifestyle require justification.

 

Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code, but the ones who intend to change it. This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral, that is until they become the majority and institute change.

No. By humanist standards, which most atheists tend towards as it is naturalistic morality, something is only immoral if it causes harm or transgresses fairness. A consensual act between consenting adults causes no-one harm, or only causes consensual harm, as such, it is the choice of the individuals engaging in the act/relationship as to whether they partake. As such, people standing up for this are moral, people standing against it are immoral. End of.

 

Then, I suppose they become moral and traditionalist become immoral.

Nope, religious traditionalists are immoral, stuck as they are with the anachronistic beliefs of 2000 years ago, but humanist traditionalists are not, as illustrated above.

 

But it’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.

No. As illustrated above, you’re approaching the mathematics of morality incorrectly. The content breaks down to harm or fairness, and then numbers of people affected. It’s actually (mostly) that simple.

 

So this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don’t affirm a national religion.

In all three cases: harm and fairness. A child, diseased or not, can still be harmed, and the fact of disease does not change the calculus in a discussion about fairness. Rape does harm, and body-autonomy is a way of judging fairness – her body, her choice. Killing someone for an idea, no matter how absurd, is always wrong, because it harms the individual who needs educating away from their bad ideas. If they are beyond education, or their ideas so heinous, then the state is harmed by sinking down to their level.

 

It only provides a motivation for continuing the delusion of objective morality.

The religious delusion of objective morality. Atheists don’t believe in objective morality, according to your own definitions, earlier in your piece.

 

2.  Morality is logical.

Morality is logical, but most human thinking on this matter is post hoc reasoning, but moral decisions are almost invariably made in the heat of the moment using our internal pre-conscious calculators, aka emotions. This is the stuff of morality and ethics debates, not the stuff of daily moral decision-making in the real world.

 

All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views.

That’s mostly accurate, though I can certainly see how the moves to have chimps, bonobos and dolphins included as conscious creatures that are also moral beings might have some weight.

 

The strict framework of atheism does not allow for those starting points.

Strictly speaking atheism has nothing to say on the matter. Atheism is just the lack of belief in a god, and as such allows for placing the ‘brotherhood of man’ at the focus of our moral thinking.

 

So any person arguing for 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.

Incorrect, both because of the misunderstanding of what atheism is, versus what atheism implies, and because of the arguments supplied to both 1 & 2.

 

Intelligent people ask serious questions.  Serious questions deserve serious answers.  There are few questions more serious than the one I’m asking.  How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true?  If a worldview can’t answer this question it doesn’t deserve you.

Neither objective meaning, nor objective morality are true, as has been repeatedly pointed out. Atheism isn’t a worldview, it is a position on a single question.

 

One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself—becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question.  Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism which he contends is true.

Indeed. Religions requires articles of faith, and a personal morality to cherry-pick the best bits. Christianity requires God to make ideas about human interactions, i.e. an arbiter from outside. Why not skip the unnecessary step and engage in moral philosophy without recourse to ancient books and imaginary Gods?

 

If your worldview can’t makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality)—it’s not worth your allegiance.  This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery.  Whoever you are. Wherever you are.  Whatever you believe.  You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.

Just because you keep saying that objective morality is true, doesn’t make it true, and as no rational Westerner believes in genocide, slavery, the beating of their children, or the subordination of women (all of which the Bible supports and codifies) the Bible is, as you say, not worth your allegiance.

Can you be sure you know which way is up when you read the Bible?:

2 Samuel 24:1 And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

1 Chronicles 21:1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.


 

References

 


[1] Blackburn, S. (2008). Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 240

[2] Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C. & Welzel, C. (2008) Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective (1981–2007), (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/wvs/articles/folder_published/article_base_122/files/RisingHappinessPPS.pdf)

[3] Paul, G. (2009). The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 398-441.

[8] De Waal, F. (2013) The Bonobo and the Atheist.. London: W. W. Norton.

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About COEXISTential

I'm a psychology graduate, about to undertake a Masters. I did my first degree at 36 for various reasons, and am contunuing in my education for better reasons. The focus of my research is the psychology of morality, and thus also religion and politics. The focus of this blog is to apply my learnings from this research to the tricky problem of fixing the world. I am a progressive liberal, humanist, and agnostic-atheist, but the individuality of my principles is more important than the labels under which they broadly fall. So let's talk about life, the universe, and everything, and how best for us humans to exist within it.
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