The Necessity of Atheistic Morality - A Response to Larry Taunton
Dear Larry Taunton,
As an atheist and a member of several free thought communities in Birmingham, I feel an obligation to respond to your recent article on the supposed hypocrisy of atheistic morality. My fellow non-theists and I are so often encountered by the apologetic shorthand of being likened to Hitler and Stalin. We constantly endure quotes from Dostoevsky by would-be philosophers all too eager to advertise that they have a library card . And we are, of course, invariably accused of existing in a vacuum of morality. I hope you will thoughtfully consider what I have to say about these accusations.
In my experience, most theists will grant that an atheist is endowed with moral intuition. After all, they claim, we are all created in the image of God and therefore subconsciously subscribe to His moral law, even if we do not believe in Him. Some theologians call this “common grace.” You, however, are claiming something very different. You are claiming not only that an atheist is profoundly impotent in deciding matters of morality but further, that it is an actual hypocrisy for a person like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, myself, or my unbelieving friends to condemn the torture and abuse of children. This is an astounding assertion, particularly when one considers that the same moral absolutes you claim to have divine access to are the same moral absolutes bolstered by Pope Benedict XVI ( a.k.a. Joseph Ratzinger), a known guardian of child rapists. To the contrary of your entire article, this indubitably places the burden of hypocrisy firmly on your shoulders, Larry. Not the atheist’s. The actions of people like Richard Dawkins and your subsequent criticism illuminate the world’s great necessity for morality without gods, a thankfully burgeoning human enterprise.
Morality is easily explained by the natural evolution of pain values. Civilizations simply would not exist if we really believed there was nothing wrong with murder, stealing, raping, etc. As human beings we all enter into a social contract with one another. There will always be a range of people who define morality in ways that are detrimental to society which is why we collectively decide the parameters of what is acceptable and enforce that through human law, thus cultivating a homogenous moral society. That is why every known civilization, including ones that vastly predate Christianity, has made taboos out of these things. On a smaller evolutionary scale morality evolves with human conscience. That is why we clearly see the gradual promotion of women, race minorities, and homosexuals in our civil and social discourse. Nations of the developed world generally agree that these are moral improvements. It is worthy of note that in all three of these cases (the subjugation of women, slavery, and homosexual bigotry) the Bible has been of no help whatsoever. In fact, the most heinous crimes committed against these three historically persecuted groups are largely predicated on the “moral” teachings of the Bible.
Consider two teachings of the Bible. One is the golden rule found in Matthew 7:12. The golden rule (which actually predates Jesus) is a legitimate moral teaching that has empirically benefited humanity. Now consider Deuteronomy 22:13-21 which states that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night then she is to be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep by the men of her city. It should be clear to you that there is nothing moral about stoning a woman to death simply for not being a virgin. So what operative mechanism do you use to decide between the two teachings of the Bible? You use your reason; your mind. So it is obvious that standards for morality do not come from gods, they come from the human mind.
“The pope's guilt or innocence in the matter of child-abusing priests is a question that I shall leave to others. Nevertheless, that Dawkins should call for his arrest for, of all things, 'crimes against humanity,' is rich with contradictions that seem lost on none more than Dawkins himself.
The reason we can condemn child rapists is because we adhere to an actual viable morality and not the relativistic prescription of gods. If God is the very definition of goodness then morality is meaningless. He could ask anything of you and it would be inherently moral. He could ask you to murder your own children (Genesis 22, Deuteronomy 21:18), stone rape victims (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), or beat slaves (Exodus 21:20) and still be considered a “good” God. He could drown nearly the entire world in a flood (Genesis 6), allow the devil to kill your family (Job) or hold you responsible for what your ancestors did thereby condemning you to eternal hell and still be considered the basis for absolute morality. This is clearly absurd.
While you may want to leave the pope’s guilt or innocence to others, I certainly do not. Like Dawkins and Hitchens (and any person with basic moral intelligence), I want Ratzinger held accountable to the same civil and moral laws that anyone else would be liable to for such crimes. Who shall we leave the verdict to, Larry? Shall we leave the verdict to Vatican City, a state virtually poisoned with corruption over child abuse scandal? Shall we rid all juries of atheists since they cannot logically understand morality? Of course not. Shame on you for wanting to leave the matter of child-abusing priests to others. Regardless of your philosophical differences, as a human being who was once a child, you should join arms with those who would seek to bring these life destroying pedophiles to justice.
“…the greatest crimes ever committed against humanity were perpetrated by those who had ‘stopped worrying’ that there might be a God to judge in the next world acts committed in this one. Indeed, it may well be that some priests took Dawkins at his word and decided to stop worrying, too. Last autumn, Dennis and Flora Milner, an atheist couple in Britain, did just that and gassed themselves. (According to The Daily Telegraph, Milner had been reading Dawkins before he signed off.)”
How can you, with even an ounce of intellectual honesty, imply that the reading of Richard Dawkins caused someone to kill themselves? Are you oblivious (or obtuse) to the overwhelming barrage of mindless suicidal/genocidal misery the world has suffered directly because of beliefs in gods? Shall we count the numbers of the conquests of Joshua and David? Shall we total the amount of needless deaths in the killing fields, the Reconquista, the centuries long Inquisition, the Crusades, the witch trials, the burning of supposed heretics, Islamic terrorism, and now the victims of sexual abuse? It seems that this moral absolute that one can only get from gods causes its fair share of world destruction.
We can either have a 21st century conversation about morality involving all of the advancements we’ve made in areas of biology, neurology, behavioral psychology, genetics and the natural sciences or we can look to a Bronze Age collection of morally retarded prescriptions and grovel before an invisible god who may or may not ask us to kill our children one day. Here’s to reason and to the hope of our evolving moral conscience.
Yours in reason,