This is the text of a recent conversation with an atheist friend, Roberto Antonio Valenzuela, on Facebook; I thought my readers here might be interested. I’d enjoy hearing any thoughts on the topics covered in our discussion.
My original post:
If you are an atheist but refuse to embrace amoralism then you are not a real atheist; you are a pseudo-atheist who clings to Christian moral values while attempting to disclaim Christianity. This is inconsistent and rather pathetic.
-Not all atheists are meta-ethical relativists. While less common, there are plenty of atheistic ethical systems built on ostensibly objective metrics such as variations of the Categorical Imperative. I can think of very, …very few atheists who are outright amoralists, since even atheists who are meta-ethical relativists are quite consistently able to be emotivists, ethical subjectivists, prescriptivists, quasi-realists, fictionalists, etc., and most humans are more predisposed to one of these views than to amoralism.
-I don’t see why someone who agrees in common with the Christian on the desirability of certain values ought thereby be a Christian, any more than “conservative” and “Republican” are synonymous. If I learn perform a magic trick, that doesn’t inherently make me a magician, nor does it make me a “pseudo-layperson” who is an hypocrite for failing to join the Magician’s Brotherhood of America. Similarly, if I happen to agree with Christians that it’s not cool to cheat on your partner (although for very different *reasons,* no doubt, since atheists take a dim view on “God said it, that settles it”), that doesn’t mean I have to admire anything *else* about Christianity, and it doesn’t make me a “pseudo-atheist” just because I hold a value in common with many Christians.
We stand on the shoulders of giants for progress, which necessarily means we gut the ideas of the past to serve us in the present. We endorse Newton but not alchemy in order to pave the way for Einstein. Likewise, I see no reason why we cannot commend Christianity for its nobler heritage — individualism, theory of rights, humanism, etc. — while passing on the prejudice against women and homosexuals, the tacit endorsements of slavery and genocide, and so forth.
Atheists can take what they find useful within Christianity while continuing a consistent rejection of elements they find objectionable (such as supernaturalism). To suggest otherwise is as silly as the idea that you cannot have Christianity without burning witches at the stake.
PS — Why is Nietzsche ALWAYS the favorite atheist of non-atheists? Why is Nietzsche ALWAYS the archetypal atheist of non-atheists? And why do non-atheists adore setting themselves up as the police of what atheists are allowed to consistently believe other than their lack of belief in God?
I can’t speak for all “non-atheists” (interesting terminology), but my personal like for Nietzsche is that he is one of very few who have taken atheism to its… logical conclusions. “God is dead” and so, necessarily, all God-based/God-ordained morals and values are dead with him. His stinging criticisms of the “atheism-lite” of his day continue to apply to most modern atheists.
Moving on… Your criticisms of Christianity in regards to the status of women and of slavery and genocide are misplaced, though I can agree that prejudice against homosexuals certainly does have a basis (though not a true justification) in Christianity. I think the quote I gave above from Thomas Cahill is a very apt summary here:
“Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current. It is no wonder, really, that the primitive… church seemed an almost fairyland harbor to women, who had always been kept in the shadows, and to slaves, who had never before been awarded a soupcon of social dignity or political importance.” (Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe, pg. 44)
It is an idea that you and I both know is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition that all human beings are of equal and inherent worth and dignity. And it is, of course, this unique idea that gave birth to abolitionism and feminism. While Christians (or those who have called themselves Christians) throughout the centuries have, without doubt, attempted to justify the continuation of slavery and of oppression of women, sometimes even using Scripture to do so, it is nonetheless the Judeo-Christian tradition of the equality and dignity of man which is the root source for modern movements of equality.
Even the anti-caste and anti-imperialist movement of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi in India was inspired by his reading of the Gospels:
“… Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence seems to have been consciously inspired first by the New Testament—the Sermon on the Mount. Only later, it seems, did he find similar ideas in Hindu scriptures.” – Mark Shepard, Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths: Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence, and Satyagraha in the Real World (portions accessible online at http://www.markshep.com/nonviolence/Myths.html )
In short: even while Christianity allowed for some modified perpetuation of slavery and gender discrimination, it created the cultural conditions in which those institutions would inevitably be rejected. And, though it certainly can serve as a basis for prejudice against homosexuals, it, again, created the cultural conditions in which such a prejudice would inevitably be rejected.
As for genocide: I’m unsure what you are referring to, especially given that nearly all war was genodical or at least semi-genocidal in the ancient world and it was a Christian, St. Augustine of Hippo, who postulated the world’s first theory of “just war.” I’m unsure how anything in the New Testament could possibly serve as a basis for genocide; honestly, I don’t think there’s much choice aside from pacifism (remember I say this as a Soldier with two combat deployments to a war zone) if one reads the New Testament and interprets it sincerely.
Now, onto the actual OP part:
You do make a good point here but the most I’m willing to allow, for the sake of logic and consistency, is utilitarianism. Some form of “enlightened hedonism” is more realistic, but utilitarianism is at least consistent. Infanticide is really the catch-22 for atheist morality. Unless we’re willing to cast aside rationality in favor of sentamentality, there is no good reason not to practice infanticide. Here is Peter Singer, a prominent atheist voice and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University:
“In Chapter 4 we saw that the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings. We saw in our discussion of abortion that the potential of a fetus to become a rational, self-conscious being cannot count against killing it at a stage when it lacks these characteristics – not, that is, unless we are also prepared to count the value of rational self-conscious life as a reason against contraception and celibacy. No infant – disabled or not – has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd edition)
I’ve been asking atheists for a long time now to explain to me why Peter Singer is wrong. None has yet been able to do so.
The atheist, plainly stated, has no means by which to argue against this, no matter if he recognizes the moral repugnance and absurdity of such statements. For the atheist, man is not created in the image of God and can bear no inherent value or dignity. Since man is not divinely endowed with value and dignity, man only has the value and dignity which he is granted by other men. Atheist morality naturally tends to utilitarianism, as a morality of utility is the only truly logical atheist morality.
Logically speaking, a child born with Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, or any number of other disabilities and disabling diseases has little if any utility. An infant born with Down’s syndrome will cause great amounts of grief, sorrow, and economic hardship to its parents; it will be a lifelong economic, emotional, and physical burden. There is no good logical reason why such a child should not be killed. The same can even be said of healthy infants who are born to parents who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not support and raise the child without significant hardship.
In an atheist worldview we are animals, hence Richard Dawkins’ unwillingness to value the life of a human infant as worth more than that of an aardvark in his essay “Gaps in the Mind” in the book The Great Ape Project. This is only logical; aside from its utility, one animal has no more value than another. According to the standard of value-by-utility, a healthy workhorse is of infinitely more value than an infant with cerebral palsy; if faced with a decision over whether to feed one’s workhorse or one’s disable infant with one’s limited resources, the obvious logical option is to feed the workhorse and let the human infant die.
-re: OP, PT. 1: What you are “willing to allow” has absolutely nothing to do with perspectives an atheist may reasonably adopt. I provided several alternatives to amoralism which an atheist may rea…sonably adopt in addition to consequentialism. Michael A. Smith, for example, is an atheist and a moral realist with more combined philosophical acumen than twenty of the both of us put together — and he’s hardly the only moral realist one can find among atheists, to say nothing of the dozens of other non-amoral ethical theories out there. I find it extraordinary that you, in your OP, would claim that amorality is the only ethical path open to “real atheists” (as if such a thing exists apart from nonbelievers in divinity). This appears to be a bare assertion and the No True Scotsman fallacy, and some substantiation of this claim is in order.
-re: OP, PT. 2: I think you missed my point. I don’t want to get into your thesis that Christianity uniquely gave rise to XYZ — while I disagree on a number of particulars, I’m okay with granting it for the sake of argument. What I was objecting to was your statement that “[clinging] to Christian moral values while attempting to disclaim Christianity… is inconsistent and rather pathetic.” I don’t see how this is the case any more than it was inconsistent and pathetic for early Christians to syncretize a variety of Jewish beliefs, scriptures, and practices while disclaiming Judaism. It is possible to be partially or wholly right for partially or wholly the wrong reasons, and so it is in no way inconsistent for an atheist to adopt a Christian value or idea that he believes has secular merit and/or is reasonably justifiable on secular grounds. (As for “pathetic,” that’s a subjective aesthetic judgment and I leave its accuracy up to the reader.)
As you point out, Christian societies of the past have institutionalized various forms of prejudice, sometimes on religious grounds. Yet surely you advocate that societies be Christian *without* institutionalizing prejudice; you look at the past, take what is noble, and reject what is inequitable. This is progressive, not inconsistent. Similarly, myself and other atheists are quite capable in principle of scrutinizing religions through history and adopting attractive aspects of those religions without inconsistency. You don’t have to be a Christian to consistently call a cathedral beautiful; you also don’t have to be a Christian (or a theist) to consistently believe you shouldn’t murder people. I’m actually surprised that you seem to take offense at this process; I’d instead be flattered that atheists were paying tacit tribute to the stability of the Christian religio-cultural edifice. It sure as hell beats vitriol on either side.
-re: NIETZSCHE: If I were to go up to you and tell you that Vladimir Solvyov’s theology is an exact reflection of true Eastern Orthodoxy and therefore “real Orthodox” must push for immediate reunion with Rome while preserving all papal distinctives, you’d laugh in my face and tell me that (1) Solvyov is not an infallible barometer of Orthodoxy, nor does he speak on behalf of all Orthodox; (2) most Orthodox both today and historically have rejected most of Solvyov’s major premises and conclusions; and (3) it is either entirely ignorant or arrogant for an atheist like me to tell you that you must accept Solvyov’s teaching when your own belief system makes no such claim.
That’s a pretty close parallel to my reaction when theists bring Nietzsche up and insist that every atheist must either accept everything Nietzsche says or admit inconsistency — truly ironic given most of these same theists (along with many atheists) look upon Nietzsche’s total nihilism as an instantly self-refuting philosophy!
Unfortunately, Nietzsche is not the archetype of all atheism, nor does he speak on behalf of all atheists. Most atheists contemporary and ancient have rejected most of Nietzsche’s distinctive ideas as antithetical to the alternative philosophies they espouse. Finally, the assertion that all atheism is either Nietzschean or inconsistent simply bespeaks volumes either of ignorance, stupidity, or hubris, for exactly the same reasons as would apply to the assertion that all Orthodoxy is either Solvyovian or inconsistent.
I honestly don’t lose any sleep over Nietzsche, but his popularity among theists *is* a pet peeve of mine because I don’t see how bringing him up serves a constructive purpose. In most cases, Nietzsche is brought up by theists to — guess what! — charge atheists (ironically) with inconsistency or unwillingness to face up to the supposed dark implications of atheism, the argument being “well, Nietzsche thought XYZ and HE was an atheist, so that means you have to as well!” In every case I have ever heard of or observed, this only served as a way for the theist to pat himself on the back with his fellow theists in reassurance at how nasty atheism is; I cannot ever recall an instance where the atheist considered the comparison fair, valid, or remotely persuasive. Since Nietzsche basically serves as a placeholder for Hitler among conversationalists too savvy to invoke Godwin’s Law, I am therefore generally annoyed when Nietzsche enters the conversation, for reasons detailed above. So I’ll tell you what, David: Let atheists keep their own counsel as to Nietzsche, and we atheists will let the Orthodox keep their own counsel as to Solvyov.
re: OP, Pt. 1 — Your entire first paragraph consists of two very glaring logical fallacies. To summarize your points: 1. “Michael A. Smith says that atheists do not have to be amoralists. Michael A. Smit…h is smarter than you. Therefore, Michael A. Smith is right and you are wrong.” This is, of course, a classic example of the fallacy of appeal to authority. 2. “You say that atheists must be amoralists. Most atheists are not amoralists. Therefore you are wrong.” This is, of course, the fallacy of circular reasoning. I never stated that all atheists are amoralists, but rather that, if they were truly rational and consistent, they should be and would be. At no point in your entire post did you actually address my position.
re: OP, Pt. 2 — Your comparison of my thesis with Christianity’s borrowing from Judaism is quite off the mark. Christianity did not take from Judaism while rejecting Judaism; rather, Christianity began as, and, arguably, continues to be, a sect of Judaism. Christianity accepted the basis of all Jewish belief, namely, the eternal and immutable will of God, while rejecting some of the particulars which Judaism has built upon that belief. Atheists have done the complete opposite with Christianity. What atheists have done would be more akin to if Christians had adopted circumcision, animal sacrifice, and kosher food but done away with the Jewish Scriptures, the Jewish God, and all other bases upon which the particulars of circumcision, animal sacrifice, and dietary restrictions are built.
To use a modern example: Imagine that someone raised within the cultural context of Islam decides to become an atheist but continues to believe that adulterous women should be stoned to death and homosexual men should be hung. I think that we can both the lack of logic in this as this Muslim-turned-atheist has rejected the basis upon which these deplorable actions depend for support while clinging to the actions themselves.
This is why I used the example of infanticide, which you failed entirely to address. Our current views of infanticide as something immoral and disgusting are the product of our Judeo-Christian heritage. There is no logical reason why someone who rejects the basis of Judeo-Christian thought should continue to deplore infanticide. Am I to take your silence on this point as a tacit admission that atheists in fact have no basis upon which to reject infanticide as I allege?
re: Nietzsche — You again plunge into logical fallacies here. First, correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you were the first person to mention Nietzsche in this discussion and yet you attempt to accuse me of violating Goodwin’s Law. This is comparable to asking someone with whom you are debating if they think you are at all like Hitler. When they respond “well, yes, in some ways, I guess…” you jump up and yell out “ha! Goodwin’s Law! I win!” Not quite.
Second, and more importantly, you have committed the fallacy of making a straw-man of my argument. At no point did I claim that you must “accept everything Nietzsche says,” as you allege I did. There is much in Nietzsche’s philosophy that I do not expect you to adopt; for instance, I certainly do not expect you to accept his theory of the eternal recurrence. Rather, I expect you to accept only one piece of his philosophy, namely, amoralism.
Now, I would like to see if you can actually address the argument and show me how an atheist can logically, rationally, and consistently continue to accept the moral values of their Judeo-Christian culture while rejecting the basis upon which those moral values are built and dependent.
As far as I’m aware, as far as burdens of proof. “he who asserts must prove.” I… do understand what you are asserting; I just want you to *evidence* your assertions. It is my belief (and the majority belief among atheists) that atheism does not necessitate amoralism. I have demonstrated that intelligent and sincere atheists believe it is possible to consistently accept atheism but reject amoralism, such as Michael A. Smith, who certainly has the intellect and philosophical acumen and motivation to root out inconsistencies in his worldview. Indeed, most atheists — who, having typically had brushes with religion prior to adopting skepticism, are motivated to be especially critical of apparent inconsistency — are not amoralists and do not see rejection of amoralism as inconsistent with atheism. I myself am not an amoralist, and as an atheist myself I’m certainly in at least as good a position as you are to judge what does or doesn’t make a consistent atheist. Finally, it makes no *sense* that atheism and amoralism should necessarily go hand in hand, since ALL atheism entails is the lack of belief in any god or gods. Logically speaking, even if I assume that amoralism is the necessary state of affairs with atheism, I should still be able to consistently accept at least fictionalism as a non-amoral meta-ethical theory.
These four points are readily apparent from five minutes of considering the issue, and lay out a prima facie case in support of the conclusion that atheism does not require amoralism. You are claiming the opposite. The burden is therefore yours to *demonstrate* your claim; it is not my burden to rebut it, particularly before you have even detailed why you believe amoralism is a necessary consequences of atheism!
I’m willing to concede my comparison to Christianity as inadroit for the sake of argument. It is my hope and expectation that you do the same with your comparison to Judaism-then-atheism, since atheists are not adopting Christian ritual practices but rather are sharing some moral values in common with Christians, which causes your comparison to Jewish ritual to fail.
Perhaps a better illustration of the point I’m trying to make here would be the thought of the Founding Fathers. I think the extraordinary success of the United States as a nation is ample demonstration that the Founders were geniuses in terms of political theory. However, many of them were slaveholders, a lot of them were deists, and of course they held a lot of ideas about the physical world that have been long since superseded by modern medicine, cosmology, etc.
But surely you wouldn’t say it’s inconsistent or pathetic for someone like myself to endorse the political theory of the Founders while disclaiming slavery, deism, luminiferous aether, etc. — in other words, it is possible to transmit what is noble in the thought of the Founders without accepting what is inequitable or ignorant in their thinking.
If you agree that it is possible and probably even commendable to carry the positive in the teaching of the Framers while rejecting the negative in that teaching, then it logically follows that it should also be possible in principle to perform the same exercise with Christianity without falling into hypocrisy. It would only be hypocritical if I thought Christianity were evil; I don’t. I think there is much in Christianity that is noble, and so I see nothing wrong with carrying it forth, even if I do not accept the Christian distinctives. The Christians DID do just this, with pagan philosophy (esp. Neoplatonism — as I’m sure you’re aware, “homoousios” is not originally a Christian term), so I’m baffled that you would accuse an atheist of hypocrisy for doing much the same thing.
I would be happy to discuss infanticide, but not here. It’s a tangent and we’re juggling plenty of conversation already. My quick answer would be that there are probably a dozen secular justifications for prohibiting infanticide incorporating ideas like theory of rights, reciprocity, etc., and certainly those have an impact on me, but I think one NEEDS no more justification than utilitarianism: drops in infant mortality (incl. infanticide) correlate strongly with increases in societally valuable things like standard of living, education, community stability, etc. This alone is enough for me to conclude that a ban on infanticide is beneficial.
I am sorry to have to correct you, but you were indeed the first to bring Nietzsche up, as my original post pointed out. You mentioned that he’s among your favorite atheistic philosophers because you believe he’s particularly honest about the implications of atheism.
But the parallel to Solovyov still holds, I’m sorry. I’m not expecting you to accept everything Solovyov says. There is much in his philosophy that I do not expect you to adopt. Rather, I expect you to accept only one piece of his philosophy, namely, his attitude toward the Papacy. If you don’t accept what he says about the Pope, you can’t be a consistent Orthodox Christian.
If I’m right about Solovyov, then I’ll happily become an amoralist the day you become a Catholic. 😉 If I’m wrong about Solovyov, then for similar reasons you are probably wrong about Nietzsche. And hence the annoyance when Nietzsche is brought up.
I have already stated why I believe that amoralism is a necessary consequence of atheism. Simply put: the atheist has no basis upon which to build a moral philosophy other than his or her own personal inclinations. If we are to be rationa…l about it, self-interest is the more logical guiding principle for the atheist.
This is where I believe that Nietzsche was right and why I mentioned him to begin with. Rejection of the Judeo-Christian God, if we are to be consistent, also entails rejection of the moral laws ordained by said God and a return to the natural morality of “might makes right.” That the strong dominate the weak is the morality of nature. From an atheist perspective, man is no more than an animal; why not, then, return to the morality of animals?
I don’t see how it can be otherwise and you have not done anything here to make me think differently. Rather, you assert that atheists can adopt other moral philosophies but do nothing to demonstrate how they can do so consistently and logically.
The problem with nearly all of the moral philosophies that you mentioned is that they are all working in reverse. Rather than starting from the ground up, establishing a basis, deriving principles from this basis, and then drawing the logical moral conclusions from those principles, they rather begin with an already completed Judeo-Christian morality and seek to justify its continued existence.
You ignored my question in regards to a Muslim-turn-atheist who would like to continue to stone women for adultery and hang homosexual men. Why would he be wrong in desiring to do so? He is, after all, doing exactly what you are doing — seeking to retain the moral practices while discarding the Source of the values from which those practices arise.
I have to say that I find it rather funny that you attempted to defend a ban on infanticide from utilitarianism. Peter Singer, the atheist advocate of infanticide whom I quoted earlier, is a utilitarian. If you will allow me to use your reasoning in regards to Michael A. Smith to also defend Peter Singer: he is, clearly, much more intelligent than you or I. He says that infanticide is defensible on utilitarian grounds. He must be right and you must be wrong. Unless you would actually like to tell me why Peter Singer is wrong?
I also have to ask if your utilitarian defense of a ban on infanticide includes abortion (that is, prenatal infanticide) also. The same argument that you made against infanticide there applies equally to abortion. Do you extend it to abortion as well?
Your attempted comparison with Solovyov continues to fail as it has now turned into an appeal to authority which my mention of Nietzsche was not. I do not expect you to accept amoralism merely because Nietzsche said it but because it stands on its own merits, whether Nietzsche had espoused it or not.
David, this has been a good conversation. Due to time constraints, this will have to be my last reply.
At the risk of sounding tautological, I and most atheists reject the naturalistic fallacy because, uh, it’s the naturalistic fallacy. Is a…nd ought are not the same, which is why the atheist is not philosophically required to prefer social Darwinism.
Again, though, we return to the burden of proof. In order for you to affirmatively assert that NO meta-ethics EXCEPT amoralism can be consistently accepted by atheists, you must demonstrate that ALL atheists who believe themselves to be consistently rejecting amoralism are in fact being inconsistent. It is not my burden to demonstrate the accuracy of the self-evaluation of these atheists as consistent; it is *your* burden to demonstrate that these self-evaluations are *inaccurate.* I earlier pointed out that even if I grant everything you assert about atheistic meta-ethics, I should still be able to consistently accept at least fictionalism, which falsifies your claim that only amoralism is consistent with atheism. You didn’t even mention this point in your reply.
In short, David, if you want to make the claim you’re making, you’re going to have to address EACH major meta-ethical system held by atheists (emotivism, fictionalism, prescriptivism, etc.) and demonstrate why each of these systems is inconsistent with atheism. Any less, and the burden of your affirmative assertion remains unmet.
re: Your hypothetical Muslim-turned-atheist: I don’t see anything wrong with the means; I would only differ with him on the ends. It cannot be necessarily wrong to glean another system for valuable precepts; however, it can certainly be contingently wrong depending on what one is attempting to glean. For example, I think the Golden Rule, while not unique to Christianity, is a great moral precept that can be found within the Christian faith and can be adapted for secular purposes. On the other hand, I would have strong differences with someone who wanted to glean the book of Joshua for the precept that it’s okay to murder a population of individuals with different metaphysical beliefs from your own. The *principle* is sound; the specific *application* is not.
re: utilitarianism, the reason Peter Singer and I differ is that we’re taking very different perspectives on utility. For starters, he’s a preference utilitarian while I’m taking more an act-utilitarian perspective. More importantly, though, Singer’s analysis is strictly at the local group level, considering what would actualize the preferences solely of the individuals immediately involved. My analysis is on the universal, societal level, taking a broad and holistic view of potential impacts rather than limiting my analysis to the individuals immediately involved.
And yes, I would apply this analysis to limit abortions at least post-viability. Pre-viability is a trickier analysis for reasons too complex to go into here.
Finally, re: Solovyov, I’m not appealing to authority; I’m appealing to his arguments. Solovyov’s discussion of the Papacy stands as much on its own merits as Nietzsche’s discussion of ethics. I’m telling you, if you don’t see the inconsistency of your views, it’s just because you aren’t reading his arguments closely enough. If you reject Solovyov’s arguments, it’s not because Solovyov’s argumentation does not speak for all possible Orthodox Christian views; rather, if you disagree with Solovyov, it’s just because you can’t handle being confronted with the logical implications of your own beliefs.
I’m hoping that with the Solovyov example, I’m illustrating how grating and condescending and intellectually arrogant these claims sound. And of course, if you just replace “Solovyov” with “Nietzsche,” “Papacy” with “ethics,” and “Orthodox” with “atheist,” you have a pretty precise copy of your statements on Nietzsche.