Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Thoughtless Insult

Since I wrote my post on the ten commandments I've had several discussions about atheist morality, what it is, where it comes from, etc.

Whenever two groups discuss morality there is a high potential for offense, but it is surprising to see the level so high in a debate when (in general) both sides share so many common moral values.

So I thought I'd write a post covering some of my thoughts on the claims made about and against atheists when it comes to morality, listed here in ascending order of offense.
  1. Atheists have no morality and think there is no such things as right or wrong
  2. Atheists are moral relativists so anything is permissible if the person thinks it is
  3. Atheists believe in social darwinism
  4. Atheists do know right from wrong because god wrote it on their heart even if they dont believe
I'll be clear that I dont think all people of faith makes these claims, but they commonly arise in one form or another when someone is asked what they value about their faith. Rephrased as "God is the source of all morality" or " faith is what tells us right from wrong" and I have lost count of the number of times Psalm 14 "The fool says in his heart there is no god" gets quoted when an atheist attempts to explain their position.

To the people who repeat these claims they are not necessarily intending to be offensive, but they are. The simple fact that atheists do find these claims offensive should indicate that morality is actually something important to and valued by the vast majority of atheists.

Statements like "Research has consistently found that religious people are less likely to engage in criminal behavior, marital infidelity, alcoholism, unprotected sexual activity. ." are often made without citing any supporting evidence.

In fact it's hard to even find any supporting evidence for this outside of repeated claims and anecdotal collections published by pro-religion groups.

While it's true that atheists/secularists are more likely to engage in underage alcohol use and illegal drugs, actual addiction rates are no different between the atheists and theists. This implies that atheists are at greater risk, yet they do not succumb more. If we proceed from the position that faith is even a factor we have to conclude that it is a negative one that weakens people to temptation... Or we take the much more reasonable view that faith is simply not a factor in alcoholism and addiction despite the claims made to the contrary.

The bulk of the reputable research done on the subject actually points the other way as shown in the 2009 paper "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions" by Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College. In the paper Zuckerman refers to and cites quite a few different studies that constitute what academics call a preponderance of evidence in support of the idea that atheists show no indication of being more subject to moral/social ills than theists.

Of course this was not new even in 2009, back in 2005 an article was published in Journal of Religion & Society ( with the catchy title "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" that simply compared level of religious belief in modern democracies with various social ills. It highlighted again that modern democracies with the lowest level of religion have the lowest levels of social problems in almost all regards.

The other claims that atheists are moral relativists or social darwinists are just as offensive to the majority of atheists. Mostly because it is wrong, secular humanism remains the largest identified moral/ethical position held by atheists.

However these claims are also offensive because they are often accompanied by extreme examples actively designed to offend.

I heard one debate in which the pro faith representative explained moral relativism by saying "Imagine the worst thing that has ever happened to you... the most horrible, painful event in your life... now imagine the person who committed that crime simply claimed that in his culture it was not considered evil so he had done nothing wrong" - the debater in question also tried to say that this was not an appeal to emotion.

Mostly however the claim of moral relativism is offensive because there are three types of moral relativism and each one of them is reflected by religious apologetics to some extent.

Descriptive Moral Relativism - is simply the observation of the fact  that different cultures have different moral standards - Any person of faith who accepts that other faiths should be allowed to practice their beliefs is agreeing with this premis.

Meta-Ethical Moral Relativism - is the contention that good/bad, right/wrong, dont have a universal truth to them and they depend on the social, historical, cultural, traditional and physical contexts - The common example I see for this is the way in which modern christians separate themselves from the crimes of the old testament and gods wrath with phrase like "well that was a different time and different world..."  

Normative Moral Relativism - goes beyond meta-ethical and claims that we should ought to tolerate the moral views of others whose standards contradict our own - This is the moral relativism used to create harsh examples to attack atheism. Most philosophers point out that you cannot get to an "ought" position from a relativistic premis. In reality one of the easiest to find examples of people following this normative line of reasoning can be seen when moderates tolerate extremists of the same religion.

Tolerance of others requires either hypocrisy or moral relativity in some quantity but most people would not identify with the extreme examples of moral relativity offered by religionists who seek to paint atheists as incapable of moral consistency/integrity.

I must admit I was tempted to totally ignore the claims of social darwinism

I could have done for no other reason than the term itself is mostly used today in a pejorative sense, that is to say if used as a derogatory name, Almost no-body actually identifies as a social darwinist now or in the last twenty years. So it is used almost exclusively by it's detractors at best as an example of a hypothetical or historical philosophical position or at worst (and this makes more sense in the debate over atheist morals) as a straw-man argument.

But if claims are expected to stand on their merits then so must rejections of claims.

Social darwinism can be simply described as an ideology that seeks to apply concepts of darwinian evolution to society. It carries the assumption that conflict and competition for limited resources is the best way to determine which social values are most effective.

The "darwinism" part was added only after Darwin published The Origin Of Species - the idea itself predates darwin. And while Darwin indicated a process by which change occurred he did not ascribe any value other than its suitability to survive in a given set of environmental conditions.

It is clear however that ANY value system applied to a system other than direct survivability precludes the adoption of social darwinism.

Religionists will often support the claim by quoting atheists who have said the universe is uncaring and extend that incorrectly, to assume that atheists are uncaring. Atheists however do not simply adopt the values of the universe.

An atheist knows that a house fire is a physical event that will not distinguish between a rabbit in a cage and baby in a cot, however that does not mean the atheist himself holds no such distinction - In fact the atheist is human and has all the instinctive, cultural, and intellectually generated values that that necessarily entails.

The fact that fire does not discriminate in it's victims demonstrates that the universe does not work to an  absolute moral dictum. The fact that humans do discriminate and value some things more than others indicates that we are able to generate morality in the absence of a an absolute dictum.

The final claim is the most offensive. That atheists get their morality from god.

This neatly filters all evidence to supports their claim. Anything anyone does that is good is so because god wrote it on their hearts, anything they do that is bad, is so because we are fallen or imperfect.

I would not (but do not deny that some atheists do) make the counter claim that any reason you have for not believing in god is rationalism and any reason you have for believing in god is insanity.

Both the religionist claim and the counter claim are circular logic, they are only supported by themselves. In the claim religionists redefine "good" as actions resulting from gods influence and "bad" as actions resulting from the fall of man.  In the (equally unsupported) counter argument "insanity" is defined as belief in god and "rationalism" as the rejection of god.

So neither stament has any logical or evidentiary value.

The claim that all atheist morality comes from god can therefore not be tested or supported and the only valid source for such a statement is revelation. They claim special knowledge that cannot be, by it's nature, shared or proven externally.

The religionists who make this claim are attempting to use an absolutely subjective experience, to justify an absolutely objective claim.

Thats why I think the claim is at worst wrong and at best unusable, but I said the claim it self was offensive.

When I argue with other people I always have to accept that they may be right, that they may, in the course of discussions, introduce a new concept or new evidence to support their position that will change the way I think on a particular matter.

But the claim that atheists are moral because god makes them that way dismisses any personal values I may bring to the table, it lays claim to any good thought, good action, or good intention any atheist exhibits. It is a claim that devalues the atheist and his beliefs, a blind judgement without any recourse or appeal.

This level of arrogance is what I find most offensive, this lack of understanding, and this intellectual dishonesty in entering a debate when no evidence or argument will shift then from their position. These claims are not made directly and personally against any individual atheist, but they are made and apply to any and all people who identify as atheist or subscribe to and atheistic morality.

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