Saturday, March 9, 2013

Atheism and (lack of) morality

Are atheists more moral than those of us who do not classify ourselves that way? I often think they are. Perhaps this is why they aren't unnerved about the long-term effects of atheism; they are doing fine, and they assume everyone else will, too.

The 'new atheists' are basically moral and well-behaved, so they don't realize that some of us are moral and well-behaved simply to keep from burning in hell for all eternity.

If there was no God or no law or no karma, we would SETTLE SOME SCORES.

I started thinking about this after participating on an atheist blog some years ago, when I was still identifying as Christian. I was struck by the fact that one of my serious questions was thought to be a joke, or at the least, a sarcastic rejoinder. It wasn't. I was dead serious. But the atheists didn't think I was serious, and that is what I found alarming: this means they do not understand what a serious matter it is.

Once again, I felt we were trying to communicate across a huge abyss.

I asked, "What about the fact that believing there is a God, keeps lots of people from killing each other?"

HAHAHA, they all responded, virtually as one unit. Well, they sneered back, one can learn not to kill someone without God. They acted like it was a simple decision, not a seductive thought that one consciously wrestles with (as in Woody Allen's great movie Crimes and Misdemeanors); an act that you eventually logically decide is... not nice. And so, you don't do it.

But why not, in that case? I asked what would be the deterrent, if there is no hell-fire? No bad karma and/or no punishment? Again, they sneered and thought I was joking or being a wise-ass. (It is also notable that they apparently assumed I was talking about someone else, i.e. The Bad People, rather than myself and other regular people like me.)

I wasn't. I was being rational. Belief systems (various kinds) have kept a lot of us from going off on people and committing violence. If there is no divine retribution, no holy justice, no guarantee the evil will be punished... do you understand how dangerous such an idea is?

Let me be very clear: Do the privileged understand that if the poor stop believing in God, they will no longer be safe? Are they ready for that world? Because I don't mind telling you, I'm not.

"Are you saying God is the only reason people act morally? What does that say about you and your view of humanity?"

My view of humanity is utterly realistic: humans have enslaved each other, pillaged, raped, and committed mass genocide. There have been Final Solutions, prison camps and Gulags. People have killed each other for insurance policies, parking places, brand-name shoes and having the wrong tattoos. And this has been possible even though the perpetrators DID believe in divine retribution and everlasting hell-fire. What if they stopped? What if all that matters is only what we see right in front of us: what you can get away with?

Will that be a better world? Doesn't it frighten you?

I don't think it frightens the atheists, because they are intrinsically moral people. This is why they can do without Gods, while the rest of us have floundered, made serious moral errors, became addicted or went to jail ... we have messed up again and again. We have had to pray late into the night, to be delivered from soul-devouring anger, envy or desires for revenge. We have suddenly left crowded parties because if we didn't, we were going to grab someone by the hair and throw them into the wall, before they even knew what hit them. We can taste the blood; we want to HURT people. We want to make them PAY.

And then, we tell ourselves, wait, that isn't up to me: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. (This phrase has the effect of deflating my anger immediately.) Karma, we assure ourselves, will deal with that individual. It isn't up to me. "What goes around comes around"--we remind ourselves and everyone around us. The overriding concept, of course, is that there WILL be justice. Therefore, I do not have to be the one to administer it.

But you atheists are telling me--it IS something I should administer myself, or it won't get done? You tell me justice will not inevitably happen?

This is something I wrote about in an old post, first quoting bell hooks:

[Quote from bell hooks]: my grandfather [was a black] sharecropper, and definitely the white man was on his back, but what I remember about that, when this man would walk through his fields and see his vegetables that he grew, he’d say, “See these vegetables. White men cannot make the sun shine. They cannot control..”

I mean here’s a black man who did not go to school, who did not have an education. But he found a sense of self that transcended the idea of him as a victim. Because he could say “yes white men have power over my life. They exploit and terrorize me, but at the end of the day, there’s a power higher than white men that I can lend my imagination to.”

[my comment]: And I would add, this is one reason why belief in god(s) has such a hold on people. To some, it is a synonym for a higher justice, a higher truth, a higher law--above and beyond unjust earthly authorities that dominate us on a daily basis.

When the atheists sneer at that, it can be experienced by non-privileged believers as endorsing the material world as it is (with oppressive powers intact) and negating the self-preservationist experiences of the oppressed.
What do the atheists intend for us losers who use religion and sky-fairies to feel better? (If religion is indeed the opiate of the masses, do atheists think believers will happily greet the people who propose to take away our opiates?) What do they have to put in its place? Will it serve the same purpose(s) and properly spur us to leave the party when we see the person we want to throw headlong into the wall? Or will we think, hey, fuck it, NO GOD, NO MASTERS, and follow them into the restroom where there are no surveillance cameras and dunk their head into the toilet repeatedly, as in LA Confidential?

Why not?


For some of us, morality has not been easy. We have had to work at it, think about it, study it and dedicate our lives to it. We study theology and religion, because we are obsessed with morals. If you rip the rug of theology/religion/rules/myth out from under us, it would leave us empty, since this is where we initially got our morality from (in a way that we could understand) and how we learned to integrate it into our being. Some of us really do need the rules... because if there aren't any, we will go hog-wild. We know this, since we already have. We have to engage in continuous remedial education about the rules, and the reasons for them, to keep us from breaking them again and again.

I think the 'new atheists' underestimate the importance of God/belief systems in keeping us moral. Is it possible that the atheists are more moral than the rest of us, and do not need rules to govern their behavior? How can we impress upon them, that for some of us, it is in the interests of society that we adhere to these beliefs, or there could be unbridled chaos, Lord of the Flies?

And why have so few believers made this argument? Probably because believers like to think they are moral. This is likely because we think about morality a good deal; I think this is because WE HAVE TO, TO STAY MORAL.

The reason so many religious adherents believe atheists could not be moral, is because WE cannot imagine ourselves moral in the same existential circumstances.


At the end of Flannery O'Connor's short story, Good Country People, the simple country man posing as an innocent Bible salesman is suddenly uncovered as a freaky, abusive sociopath. The educated, atheist PhD in the story, has accepted him at face value ... right up to the end of the story, when he unexpectedly and cruelly humiliates her. "You ain't so smart," he schools her, "I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!"

The end of this story, and those words, have always chilled me to the bone. Because whenever I read all the highly-educated atheist discussions on the net; whenever I read ultra-smart authors like Steven Pinker; whenever I admire the smart, self-sufficient, rational atheists who know where they are going and how to get there... I suddenly remember the sociopathic Bible salesman. And I worry that the 'new atheism' may be more successful than it should be. It might branch out from the moral, rational, educated people like Steven Pinker and Dan Fincke... to sociopaths-in-training, like O'Connor's Bible salesman... and to morally-struggling (and/or morally-confused) people like me. I think I am a fairly average person in many ways, and I know that the overall message we take away from the New Atheism, may not be the fresh-faced utopian vision of ideological and intellectual freedom, that the new atheists obviously wish for us. The atheists believe that their cleansing experience of rationality would also be ours, but our experience might not be anything remotely like that.

It may be the experience of finally doing those things that we have always held back... because... well, why not?


And I wish they would start taking that idea seriously.


Ann ODyne said...

Impressive post dear Daisy.
"We have suddenly left crowded parties because if we didn't, we were going to grab someone by the hair and throw them into the wall, before they even knew what hit them. We can taste the blood; we want to HURT people. We want to make them PAY" yep, that's me.

I love that TV show Person Of Interest because the man in the suit does throw the the awful people up against the wall. we all wish real life could be like that.
It is not, however, Christian ethic preventing me, it is arthritis and that I don't want to be in the slammer for it.

Your driver said...

I suppose belief has made me a better man. I've never quite followed the logic back to it's origins. When I feel connected to the divine, I feel pretty good. When I do things that I consider immoral, I feel disconnected. I would probably be angry, bitter and grief stricken if the possibility of the divine went away. I don't know how that would shake out in terms of my behavior. I will admit to loving gangster movies and being fascinated by certain types of sociopaths. What has kept me from emulating them was the sense that I would be cutting myself off from the source.

Sevesteen said...

I'm an oridnary atheist, not a New Athiest. One of the problems that I have is that the morality of one's religion is based quite a bit on luck--what if you were raised as a Westboro Baptist? If a voice tells you to sacrifice your child, is that God or schizophrenia? If you leave one church and join another based on teachings, how is that different than my rational choice on proper moral behavior?

DaisyDeadhead said...

Sevesteen, true. Why do you think people change their churches?

D. said...

I tend to worry about people with no constraints, moral, ethical, or fear of prison.

I don't like fear as a control, although I admit that with many people, that is the only thing that works. Even so, there is healthy fear (things that can kill you) and unhealthy fear (things that invite imagined results, like possible social...infelicities). There are plenty of people out there with moral constraints who are still lying, stealing, murdering, etc.

There is the possibility that, like a lot of people going on about morality, the Organized Atheists are talking about sex. In which case, morality promising hellfire is harmful and ethics do a better job (I'm not going to mention all those religious men who are flouting their own morals because we'd be here all day) of centering benefits and harms on the actual people involved.

Sociopaths, luckily, are rare. But really, I would prefer a morality based on ethics.

EG said...

My view of humanity is utterly realistic: humans have enslaved each other, pillaged, raped, and committed mass genocide. There have been Final Solutions, prison camps and Gulags. People have killed each other for insurance policies, parking places, brand-name shoes and having the wrong tattoos. And this has been possible even though the perpetrators DID believe in divine retribution and everlasting hell-fire.

As an atheist, this is where your argument falls apart for me. Why am I supposed to believe that religion has any moral force when the people who have perpetrated such terrible things have been believers? Am I supposed to be afraid that things are going to be worse than the Holocaust? It's been believers who've persecuted people like me, Jews, historically speaking. I just don't see much evidence that religious belief actually does prevent horrible behavior.

DaisyDeadhead said...

EG: I just don't see much evidence that religious belief actually does prevent horrible behavior.

Well, I am telling you, it does.

I anticipated a response like this, which is why I offered myself as an example. Are you claiming I don't know myself as well as I know I do? ;)

I am a typical person (as someone who belongs to a minority faith, you are atypical), so I think I speak for a lot of 'regular' people just like me.

Doesn't that count?

D, I have often thought it IS sex they are talking about, but to me, that is the least of it. I am talking (example) about going after people you believe need to be punished for bad behavior, and you know punishment will not happen any other way.

Barnacle Strumpet said...

EG, they had gulags mentioned. Many Communists were, iirc correctly, quite unreligious. (And yes, I am aware they targeted Jews as well).

Daisy, I am an atheist and I largely agree with you. I find the whole atheist schtick where they pretend that morality without religion would be common to be quite amusing.

But then, I am a nihilist. I don't believe in inherent/universal moral guidelines, and I don't see much point in moral relativism.

If an atheist uses logic and reason, they would come to the conclusion that inherent morality does not exist and that relative morality is fairly meaningless. But there's a reason nihilism is not a popular branch of atheism; it's not easy to live a life where you accept that life and everything in it has no meaning, and that everyone can do as they please without their actions being good or bad.

As you said, morality, whether an atheists or a religious person's, is somewhat an opiate that makes living life much, much easier.

I don't think most people, even with religion taken away, would turn to true moral nihilism, like you describe. If you don't believe in morality, you cannot feel aggrieved when people do "bad" things to you; because by logic they aren't bad at all. You can't complain that you've been wronged when someone steals your car, beats you up, or burns shit for the lulz.

Most people would likely continue to nurse a sense of what's wrong and what's right, based on what they wouldn't like to happen to them.

Most people, even without God, would likely wind up banding together and agreeing not to do X bad behaviors, so that they could live in the boring safety of their living rooms, watching TV.

Atheists have it right in some ways, wrong in others. They're right that moral systems would exist without religion; they're wrong about why. They will exist not because humans have some innate moral sense, but rather because creating a system or morals and ethics makes life easier for humans.

While freedom from morals sounds attractive, most people will choose safety and survival over that freedom any day.

Martel said...

@ EG: When somebody does something awful in the name of religion, we'll probably hear about it. We know about the Inquistion, suicide bombers, and the Salem witch hunt.

When some schlub in Kansas in 1882 decided NOT to kill some vagrant and bury him in the backyard because he thought Jesus was watching, it never made the news. There are countless time people have refrained from killing, stealing, cheating on their spouses, or screwed somebody over in a business deal because of religion that we will never know about. Have atheists made the same choices? Yes, but even if YOU don't need such external constraints, lots of other people do.

Also, there are philosophical atheists like Sam Harris and Ayn Rand who have developed moral codes absent any belief in God, but Daisy was correct to point out that lots of atheists aren't particularly philosophical and will do whatever they can get away with. The long arm of the law can't see everything, and without any belief in God lots of these people would have no disincentive whatsoever to refrain from doing anything.

Also, in addition to the countless ways that religion keeps people from doing wrong, it's also gotten a lot of people to do right. Germans who ignored their faith went along with the Holocaust, but many Christians risked their lives to shelter Jews because they thought that God required them to. Korean Christians are currently risking harsh prison sentences in China to help North Koreans escape to Mongolia or Thailand, and they'e doing it because of their faith.

Again, there's no way to know how many times somebody has helped out a neighbor or worked in the homeless shelter because of Theism, but it happens A LOT. Remove the belief in God, and there's no way to know what would result.

Anonymous said...

The one atheist I knew well was raised Jewish and was also a pedophile. I suppose one can rationalize anything, and I'm sure he did - however does it matter whether atheism or religion is behind it? I'm quite sure he rationalized his behavior.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm another atheist.

I don't think religion is the only way to pass on the moral rules of a culture. You depend on your faith for moral guidance, because it is an intrinsic part of how your learnt to be moral. However if you grew up without religion, you might have based your morals on something else.

There is quite a lot of theory out in the world about moral development. And philosophers who consider morals from a non-religious viewpoint.

Martel said...

@Anonymous: I'm not seeing anybody claim that religion is the ONLY way to forment morality, but thus far it has been the most effective way. Plenty of secular philosophers have put plenty of though into it, agreed. However, these philosophers haven't had near the effect that religion has.

One way that secular morality can break down is that per religion, there are times when it's worthy to give up your life for something. Other than your own offspring, it's harder to make that case if you believe that once you die you simply black out. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I myself haven't yet seen it done effectively.

Blue Heron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blue Heron said...

Interesting topic. The need for a god to keep us from committing immoral acts versus the god that asks that we perpetrate crimes against humanity in his or her name to advance his or her dominion. Many of my Christian friends believe that we are living in a time of spiritual battle.

An ethics professor at Stanford once told me that if there is not hell, one would have to be invented to keep the muggles on the straight and narrow.

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful" Seneca the Younger

Anonymous said...