Re: [asa] Re: good atheists?

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Tue Sep 08 2009 - 15:26:37 EDT

Cogan, Susan L. wrote:
>> Your argument seems to be that if a society is at peace and law-abiding, it's
>> therefore moral.
> The proposition was that if the society is atheist then it could not be
> moral (having no moral standard to abide by) and would descend into chaos. A
> society that is utterly enslaved by an evil government isn't a good
> comparison to a free society that makes good moral choices in spite of
> having a very large atheist population.

Hi all,

I'd offer the suggestion that any claim of the sort "Atheists are necessarily immoral" (or even the weaker "Atheists are necessarily amoral") is actually relatively easy to counter - even from the perspective of Christian theology which teaches that a moral sense (conscience) is a fundamental aspect of human nature.

Because of this, I don't know of any sophisticated thinker who argues such a thing.

So, for example, C.S.Lewis' argument in Mere Christianity is not that atheists (or non-Christians) lack a moral sense, but rather that all people do possess a moral sense and that this sense is roughly equivalent across religious and cultural divides.

What atheism doesn't do, in my opinion, is offer any cogent argument as to why this moral sense should be considered to have any sort primacy over one's other senses or why it should be ascribed a position of binding authority over human behaviour.

One way of explaining my point is to ask what, on the assumption of a materialistic evolutionary origin for human morality, is the difference between the desire to help Granny across the road and the desire to push her under a bus? On the assumption of a materialistic evolutionary origin for human morality both would seem to be simply the outworking of the survival instinct. And I cannot for the life of me see why we should therefore consider the first of these two to be "higher" or "more moral" than the second.

If the argument is simply that atheists "feel" that pushing Granny under the bus is "bad" whilst helping granny is "good" then, fair enough. But if the argument is that the atheist can offer some cogent reason why I should act in one manner rather than the other, then I would like to see such cogent reasons articulated. My suspicion is that all the atheist can ever do is simply to re-articulate the moral imperative in alternate terms: "Why *should* I not push Granny under a bus?" - "Because you *should* do no harm to Granny?" - "But WHY *should* I do no harm to Granny?" - "Well, because you *should* do no harm to other people?"; "But WHY *should* I do no harm to other people?" ...and so on.

If, ultimately, the argument gets around to some pragmatic offering such as "Well, if we all went around randomly pushing people under buses, where would that leave us?" then there is an obvious rejoinder: "It would leave YOU under a bus" - which is based on the purely pragmatic reasoning that one OUGHT to get in first when dealing with pragmatists (unless, of course, your pragmatist dialogue partner is of more use to you alive than dead - only don't then stand too close to the curb).

The only argument which seems to me open to the atheist is, funnily enough, precisely the one that Christians use: that a moral sense is inherent to human nature. Problem is, however, that under an atheist notion of origins (and let's remember that materialistic evolution is the ONLY game in town for the atheist) "human nature" is a very questionable entity.

After all, on a materialistic evolutionary understanding the species "Homo Sapiens" is a historical curiosity whose moral sense is not only a matter of evolutionary flux, but has no more claim to significance than the instinctive impulses which drive of any of a million other species. If it is not "wrong" for a pack of Canis lupus (Gray Wolf) to rip Granny limb from limb, then why is it "wrong" for me to do the same? If Canis lupus is not bound by the maxim "do no harm", then why should I be?

And if the answer to THAT question makes some appeal to human rationality - then my response is simply that the atheist hasn't shown why human rationality should be considered "higher" (or more binding) than human irrationality - particularly my irrational desire to dispatch Granny in whatever way takes my fancy.

Cutting the story short, I think that ultimately Nietzsche was correct (he is, perhaps, history's only honest atheistic moralist) and that for the atheist morality is merely a matter of who has power to impose their will. That is to say, it is nothing more than a matter of honest consistency for the atheist to hold that human morality is determined by the same blind evolutionary laws that determine all else.

Those laws may have endued us with the notion, at this particular point in our evolutionary development, that pushing helpless old ladies to a grisly death is, all things considered, a bad thing. But there is no reason to consider such a notion "moral" in any traditional sense of the term, nor any reason why I "should" be bound by it. There are, on the other hand, plenty of people who argue that humans should seek to transcend their evolutionary limitations and anybody who has read Nietzsche (or Peter Singer) will see what such transcendence entails.

So I agree with the trivially obvious claim that atheists DO have a moral sense, what I DON'T see is any way of grounding that moral sense in any way which would compel me to take it seriously. And when that moral sense is articulated such that it becomes a moral code, one which claims proscriptive authority over human behaviour, then I see no reason to think that such a code is anything other than an arbitrary exercise of the Nietzschan "will to power" - whether we choose to recognize the fact or not.


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Received on Tue Sep 8 15:27:23 2009

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