Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Necessity of Atheistic Morality - A Response to Larry Taunton

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.

You said:

“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.

You said:

“…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,

Clint Wells


isbelle said...

So proud of you <3. This sounds great and I hope it doesn't fall on deaf ears. Maybe a few people will read it and at least consider what you're saying.

CK said...

Totally understand your premise, Clint. However, one thing keeps bugging me. (I know that this is widely veering from the blog topic at hand; I hope you don't mind indulging me here ... I'm also hoping to read more about the issue in those books you recommended.)

Does this mean that societies whose cultural practices are different from our own, and who seem to have a different set of moral values, are less evolved than ours?

By that I mean specifically modern cultures in which women are not allowed to vote; in which rape may be on the books as a bad thing but is never the basis for prosecution in a court of law; in which rape and mutilation are used as common war tactics; or in which women are legally sold into marriage at young ages (in some cultures this can be as young as 12).

There are many different examples I could choose from, but for the sake of argument, I'm focusing on the specific moral values on which you have chosen to focus: namely, rape and women's rights. Also, I'm deliberately using the term "evolved," and not "developed," because I think there's a difference.

My next question would be: if they're not as evolved as we are (which assertion I think carries some bold racial implications), then why should we hold them to the same moral standards we live by? In other words, if, scientifically, it hasn't been necessary for them to evolve along the same lines in order for the species to continue in their little corner of the world, then are we to condone such behavior?

Clint Wells said...

Cassia – I think I understand your question. In terms of biological evolution there is no difference between human beings in the developed world and human beings in more primitive societies therefore eradicating any racial implications in moral judgments. In terms of morality I think the words evolved and developed are interchangeable.

So a society that mandates slavery and the subjugation of women would be an empirically less evolved/developed moral society. We are not holding them to the standards of American morality. We are holding them to the standards of humanistic morality. This is why an organization like the UN has an court for crimes against humanity. Through science and reason (and against most religions) the world’s developed nations are increasingly moving towards life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all human beings. This is creating a homogenous moral society, not gods. The Judeo-Christian god is quite explicitly against these principals and that is why Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are enemies of the humanity.

Clint Wells said...

Err....enemies of humanity*.

CK said...

Hmmm. Very interesting. Sounds a bit imperialistic, but that's probably just the anarchist in me. And anyway, I'm a hack philosopher at best. We'll talk more. Hope to see you tonight, glad you're coming!

Clint Wells said...

Imperialism is extending the rule or authority of a nation over foreign countries. The International Criminal Court tries individuals, not nations. That is how we went after Sadaam Hussein and that is hopefully how this child raping bastard Ratzinger will meet justice.

Check out http://un.org/news/facts/iccfact.htm

Robert said...

I'm curious where this "humanistic morality" comes from since we've determined that its not from the Bible or popular consensus.

Secondly, Ratzinger as a child rapist? I guess he got his cues from Moses, huh?

Clint Wells said...

Robert - I have determined no such thing. Objective truth (i.e. the Earth is round) is not decided based on consensus. However, subjective truth (i.e. morality) IS partly based on consensus.

It's objective in the sense that, for example, we are biologically hardwired not to reproduce incestually. Why? Because civilizations that do so die out. The same goes for murder, rape, stealing, etc.

That is essentially the macro evolution of our most basic moral intuitions. On the smaller scale of progressive human dignity we decide what is moral based on an increased understanding of pain values and a desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Re: Ratzinger...

In any crime there are degrees of fault. A person can be tried and found guilty of fourth degree murder for being an accomplice. I'm perfectly comfortable calling Ratzinger a child rapist because he knowingly put children in the way of pedophile priests he explicitly protected.

It isn't clear whether or not Moses raped children. But I certainly wouldn't put it past him.

Robert said...


How do you balance the "greatest good" utilitarian morality with individual freedom and choice? When they conflict, what takes precedent? What about people who differ from the norm (outcasts)? Don't you think this evolutionary cycle would seek to produce a certain likeness among humanity?

Anonymous said...

Insightful post, Clint. While your response to Mr. Taunton was part argument-part rhetoric, I think one issues that needs discussion is the distinction between morality as "prescription" and morality as "description." Much of the time, Christians confuse the two and confuse the atheist of "having no morals" when obviously there may be many moral propositions of which both the Christian and atheist may share.

However, you seem to understand that distinction on the surface level, which is why you appeal to an evolutionary argument of moral prescription. Yet, one aspect of such an argument where I think more work needs to be done is "Why think that moral prescription found in our moral intuition is necessarily right or good?" In other words, if we wish to adopt an objectivist theory of morality so that we may make universal claims (any form of relativistic morality, by definition, fails to justify any universal claim of moral prescription), then the evolutionary theory of moral intuition needs to show that such morality is actually morally good or proper.

What makes this situation sticky is that many atheists and naturalists are divided on this issue. You obviously seem more inclinded to a Randian theory rather than a Rortyan one.

Fun read. Thanks again, Clint.

Clint Wells said...

Robert - Those are good questions. It's sort of the classic Utilitarian idea of sacrificing one for the benefit of all vs. the more Kantian idea that the morality of an action depends on itself, and not it's end result.

I don't know what the answer is but I do feel compelled by the thrust of nature towards a more utilitarian outlook. But many factors must be weighed and this is the burden for moral philosophers. Thankfully, I play guitars for a living.

There is an overwhelming congenial likeness amongst the civilized world. In fact there are no known cultures in which it is not morally taboo to wantonly kill, rape, or steal.

Who are people who differ from the norm? Murderers? Rapists? Thieves? Criminals? Well, they are obviously not well and should rightfully be detained or eradicated from civil society.

Biologically speaking someone who lacks the neurological system that, for example, inhibits an average person from dealing with anger by murdering someone, is indeed suffering an evolutionary retardation. There is room for this in evolution because half of how evolution works is through unguided mutation as opposed to the emphatically non-random process of natural selection...which obviously selects genes that are conducive to survival.

Neurology, cognitive science, and criminology have made great strides in explaining the psychology behind people who seem to lack any real guilt or external pain values. Fascinating fields of study.

Anon - How would you make those distinctions?