Monday, July 6, 2009

Atheists Still Say the Darnedest Things!

In today's edition of the local paper (not available online except to subscribers, or I'd link to it), there's a letter defending the morality of atheists. We can so be moral, just like believers! declares the writer of the letter. It's not a comparison I'd be inclined to make: theists not only don't have a monopoly on morality, they don't even have significant market share.

The writer isn't terribly coherent.
Consider the Ten Commandments as a sole source of moral truth. Don't rape. Don't molest children. Those missing moral truths are more profound than "remember the Sabbath." Searching the sacred text beyond the Commandments, one enters the realm of textual interpretation. Atheists also interpret texts in the search for moral guidance: think the Golden Rule.
What? But maybe the letter was edited for length.

First I have to object to the term "moral truth." Whether truth or falsehood apply to moral commands, or to any commands is dubious, and has been debated for a long time. Is "Keep off the grass" true or false? "Speed Limit 65"? Such sentences can be recast as statements -- "It's wrong to commit rape," "It is forbidden to walk on the grass here" -- but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to evaluate their truth, or their profundity.

Does anyone really think that the Ten Commandments are "a sole source of moral truth"? Does the Bible present them as such? The Torah, after all, contains about 600 additional commandments, so whatever the function of the Decalogue in religion, it's not the sole moral canon.

a prohibition of rape more profound than a command to keep the Sabbath? The rest of the Torah prescribes penalties for rape, and for many other sexual transgressions. How fundamental is sexual conduct to morality anyway? I'd say it's less an issue in itself than a subset of how we treat other persons and respect their integrity, but that is open to debate, since many people -- not all of them theists -- disagree. (I have to harp rather often on the point that religious morality was invented by human beings, so whatever we atheists don't like in religious morality can't be blamed on some nebulous entity called "religion" but rather on the human beings who invented it. If sexuality is a hot-button issue in religious morality, that's because human beings thought it was, and constructed their morality accordingly.)

And what about the Golden Rule? It certainly must be interpreted, but how? Why should it be privileged, and which version does this writer favor? The positive, Do-unto-others, version, or the so-called Silver Rule, "Don't do to others what you don't like"?
The common suggestion that atheists have no moral sense is a dangerous idea, dangerous because it is wrong and encourages harm to atheists and because it chills atheist expression. ... Let the discussion begin with facts, not with the innuendo that atheists lack morals.
These are odd objections. I wouldn't say that the claim that atheists lack a basis for morality was either a "suggestion" or an "innuendo" -- too many theists say it outright. But is a "dangerous idea" necessarily a bad thing? (Daniel Dennett celebrates Natural Selection as a dangerous idea, using "dangerous" as a term of approval.) If it's "wrong" (by which I take it the writer means "incorrect") that "atheists have no moral sense," then it hardly matters whether it "chills atheist expression" or even "encourages harm to atheists." It would probably do the same even if the claim were true.

To be fair, the letter writer began by answering another writer's rhetorical question, "What is 'good' for atheists?"
Answer: Mostly, the same things that are "good" for believers.
The trouble here is that believers disagree among themselves about morality. So do atheists, of course. And one vital good for theists -- belief in deity -- is not a good for atheists. That's why this dispute is taking place. Brushing aside that core disagreement is especially disingenuous, considering that many atheists agree that believing in deity or not has serious moral implications.
To atheists, like theists, things can feel deeply wrong or right.
Moral subjectivism is not a reliable approach to morality. Eating pork can feel deeply wrong if one has been socialized not to eat it. Atheism feels deeply wrong to many theists. That's what has to be dealt with; a specious appeal to common ground won't resolve the issue.
Humans probably have a moral instinct, but, even if not, neither atheists nor theists need religion to tell right from wrong. Atheists have parents who distinguish good from bad.
Ouch. Indeed we do, and just as fallibly. And like theists, we may or may not accept our parents' moral choices.
Atheists belong to communities that communicate norms.
Atheists contemplate morality and learn from the words and behaviors of those around them.
Better. And just like theists, we respond more or less responsibly to our social and cultural environment. I think this writer was headed in the right direction, but I think he's still drawing back from the abyss of non-foundationalism. Morality isn't a matter of truth, for better or worse; it's a matter of choice, and disagreements can't be resolved by appeal to any authority -- not to gods, to reason, to profundity. The buck stops here, with us. I'd call that a dangerous idea, but I think it's also true, and it's no surprise that so many people have tried to find a solid place outside ourselves on which to stand morally. Which doesn't mean we can't have morality, only that it's going to be a lot harder to make it work than we'd like.