Sunday, June 03, 2007

Atheism, theism and morality

One of the most offensive parts of Peter Hitchens' review of God is not Great is his portrayal of atheist ethics. Beyond the ad hominem non sequitur mentioned in my previous post (Christopher Hitchens supports the war in Iraq; Christopher[1] is an atheist, therefore atheism entails support for the war in Iraq), Peter employs such a blatantly fallacious and ridiculous straw-man version of atheism so egregious that it cannot simply be called "mistaken"; thecharge of slander can be mitigated only by noting that it has been proven that religion has an almost invariably corrosive effect on reason.

Peter trots out the standard canard against atheism and scientific materialism[2]:
How can the idea of a conscience have any meaning in a world of random chance, where in the end we are all just collections of molecules swirling in a purposeless confusion?
This canard has been so often proffered and so often rebutted that it is, in the 21st century, irresponsible and indefensible to even mention it.

First, the world is not a world of "random chance", it is a world of chance and natural, physical law. Second neither science nor atheism endorses such trivially stupid reductionism. On this account, the Taj Mahal is just a pile of stone; Shakespeare is just meaningless squiggles of ink; the scent of a rose is just a chemical formula. This characterization of atheism and scientific materialism is utterly dehumanizing—atheists are either completely inhuman or they are simply lying. Either way, the message is clear: Were it not for "the foolish, trivial restrictions imposed on us by an interfering, jealous nuisance of a God" who knows what acts would be perpetrated by believers on these inhuman and/or lying atheists.

Let me set the record straight: We atheists are indeed ordinary human beings. Like all human belings, we have likes and dislikes, we have values, we have the ordinary human emotions of caring and compassion. What we don't do is justify our humanity as craven, sheeplike servility to the "Supreme Fascist". Our values, our preferences our emotions are simply who we are. We don't have to be slaves of God to have values, or have value.

I'm a humanist. I abhor the suffering of others; I take joy in others' pleasure. I feel this way not only from self-interest (it cannot but help to accrue to my benefit if others feel this way, and my sincere declaration maintains reciprocity), but also because it is who I am. The physical cause of who I am is partly genetic, the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary accidents and natural physical laws and partly because of my socialization, itself the result of thousands of years of social accidents and physical laws, but regardless of the physical cause, I am still who I am: A thinking, feeling, caring human being who takes pleasure and satisfaction in my own life and the lives of others. I "justify" myself by my existence itself, not by craven servility.

Indeed I am suspicious of theists who claim the only reason they are "good" is because God wants them to be good. Of course, they're just retrojecting ordinary human values on their mythical construction, but the sense is that they're afraid to make a decision on their own account, and if they believed God ever commanded them to genocide[3], slavery[4], human sacrifice[5], rape, etc. ad nauseam, they would do so with equally cheerful submission.

According to Peter, Atheism entails "the worship of self and power"
But as soon as we have the power to do evil, we generally do. What is to stop us, unobserved, doing and planning acts of selfish unkindness against others, as so many of us do – for example – in office politics?

What is to stop us, in the privacy of the home, taking advantage of the goodness of others more generous than ourselves? Who will ever know?

If we become rich or mighty, how much worse the problem is. We can rob, wound and defraud our fellow creatures without any fear that they will be able to take revenge. A surprising number of us have power to act in this way.

Look at the annual massacre of unborn babies, done away with for the convenience of adults.

In the harsher parts of our great cities, strong, violent people rule their neighbours with pre-medieval savagery, demonstrating a fine understanding of what it means if there is no God: that if something works for you, and you can get away with it, then you may do it without fear of consequence in this world – and there is no next world.

That is practical atheism.
Bullshit. This is, as Peter himself points out, humanity:
Religious and unbelieving people have both done dreadful things, and the worst of them have committed their murders and their tortures in the belief that they were doing good.

Nothing is proved by either side in this argument, by pointing to the mountains of skulls piled up by evil atheists, and evil theists.

What they have in common is that they are human, and capable of the sin of pride.
Ya think?

Peter trades on the common theist trope that atheists are just trading on Christian morality.
[Atheists] would never behave like that, surrounded as they are by the invisible web of ten centuries of Christian law and morality, which still protects the nicer parts of our country.
Peter obviously does not share with his brother even a cursory familiarity with history. First, why ten centuries, instead of twenty, or at least sixteen[6]?

All of our modern ethics spring not from Christianity but from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. These eras are notable precisely for adopting human reason and human ethical values and pushing them back onto God. If these values were inherent in Christianity itself—as a specific religion, not just as a culture—why did it take at least a thousand years to discover them? And why are they correlated with the loss of power of the Church?[7] The notion is risible.

Peter actually understands atheist ethics,
If we are weak and poor, we can all summon up self-interested decency, behaving in a kind way, in public, towards those from whom we hope for decency in return.
but simply dismisses them as stemming from weakness and poverty. But we are all of us, in a sense, weak and poor—the individual without a society can live barely better than an animal. Power and wealth are—for individuals—illusions, and are brought low, not by God, but by reality. Even a thousand years of the most brutal Christian tyranny over one entire continent and part of another could not quell the desire for freedom, liberty and happiness which is part of the reality of natural human nature. Even today, centuries of Islamic religious tyranny is feeling the pressure of the natural human values promoted by the Enlightenment. The Marxist Soviet Union was brought low in mere decades by by its refusal to acknowledge reality.

It may be the case that authority, and submission to authority, is a natural and ineluctable part of human nature. If so, there it is. It's not something I personally approve of, and I myself will always speak out against the craven submission to authority for nothing better than the avoidance of personal moral responsibility, but that's just me. But such authority if it is to survive must be about reality, not fantasies of an invisible sky fairy. Superstition, no matter how well-meaning, can ever save us from reality, it can only enslave us to those who would deny reality.

[1] To avoid confusion, I will refer to Peter and Christopher Hitchens by first name.
[2] More precisely denoted as "naturalistic physicalism".
[3] See also EX 32:27, EX 32:27-29, NU 21:3, NU 21:35, NU 31:17-18, DT 2:33-34, DT 3:6, DT 7:2, DT 20:13-14, DT 20:16, JS 6:21-27, JS 8:22-25, JS 10:10-40 (the list goes on ad nauseam) and, of course, GE 6:11-17 and 7:11-24. (Thanks to Donald Morgan for his excellent enumeration of Biblical Atrocities.)
[4] See also Ephesians 6:5.
[5] See also NU 31:31-40.
[6] Since the establishment of Christianity as the state religion by Constantine I in the fourth century CE.
[7] Perhaps Martin Luther deserves some credit: "Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding." Perhaps not.


  1. IT Is perhaps a tad 'superstitious', too, or at least one is at risk of being taken for a secret pessimist, to appear to assert that phantasy, hope and reality in its fullest sense, all of these are somehow 'incompatible' with religion, science & reason. Since I am a mystic, of course, my wicked share of the common power-drive /is/ offended by the 'obviously' filthy & willful refusal of the scientifically-afflicted, to bend over before the authority (!) of my austere & manly, 'superior', view (across the writhing buttock-fields of all these well-oiled toiling technologists at my feet & of every gender). And, the Nobel laureate in his laboratory with his catamites & hypnotised coeds is likewise thrown into a coma of rage, by my antinomian insolence and refusal of the boresome & narrow-minded (!) drudgeries of /his/ factitious contemporary orthodoxy! However, when one beholds the physical world in which all of these /things/ factually and physically exist together (buttocks & coeds & /my/ propinquity thereto most emphatically included!), on various molecular and electronic scales one realises that the difficulty lies not in the lies we tell one another, but rather in our sheer inexperience with our /new/ selves. The trouble is not in our stars from whence we came -- rather, we are caught up in the flood of this comparatively-new phenomenon, of nature's evolving self-perception in our physical being. Doubt-afflicted Methodist, leering pan-sexualist, Sufi sage and ecclaesiaphobic scientist, all declaim in unison despite conceit & selves, and so rings forth the swelling chorus:

    ONE Reality.

    THE Fable of the seven blind men and the elephant is not-inapposite....

  2. There is nothing wrong with fantasy, and hope, fiction, wishful thinking, or subjective values. All of these activities are normal operations of the human mind, in themselves entirely unobjectionable and usually benign.

    What is fundamentally incompatible with science and reason is to call these things true or employ them as a substitute for truth.

  3. I Think the problem here is with the still-established use of 'objective' and 'subjective'.

    THESE Are hallowed by cartesian thought, notably, and they have their value in situ.

    HOWEVER To-day, of course, whatever the source of the stimulus, whether on the molecular scale or on the electronic, we know more clearly, I think, that the stimulus produces effects which animals such as ourselves perceive in the cortex and its efflative 'mind'.

    THE Preferred response-path, as a corollary, is a function of conditioning:

    ONE Can extravert the response, especially if one is a categorical or feeling type, and assign value (sic) & throw bombs (atomic or terrorist).

    MANY Are vulnerable to this temperamental weakness, whether employed directly in religion or one of the contemporary post-transcendant surrogates ('science', eg, or ... public multicultural-adminstration):

    HENCE, The Edward Tellers and G W Bushs.

    AND That is fine as far as it goes -- firemen should not be poets, goes the saying. Nor repressed pervs President, but that is another fish-kettle!

    ON The other hand one can /intravert/ their response -- unfortunately, educational extraversion and a stubborn clinging-on to the priority of the molecular and 'public' means that education for introversion and 'conscious' subjectivity is virtually non-existent. It follows that people who were meant by 'God' and nurture -- Nature, in other words -- for introverted work, because of the universal egotism & desire to be the big bug, instead all-too-often fall into the public shadow and become a lot of inferior extraverts:

    HENCE, On a continuum to be sure, the murderous bin Ladins -- and merely-shrill Dawkinses.

    OBJECTIVE & Subjective categories in other words are so 'interactive', mutually dependent, and no-longer for good-or-ill hermetically sealed off in our cultural set-up, that their heuristic value dwindles even as their epistemological use persists.

    AGAIN, The problem of creativity is no ones 'fault' & I daresay the many of our woes are from lack of imagination & real phantasy, rather than any efflorescence of these.

    ANOTHER Difficulty of wishful thinking (sic), at least for those who are not very good at it, is that when the non-wishful are asked to say something about what is phantasy, they tend to say it is 'nothing but' a load of sentimental jacking-off [/wanking/, eg -- NB UK-readers -- BW], or else mahometan screwballs, or porno or something.

    THIS Again is a problem of education.

    ALAS, To-day, such a large majority are fobbed-off for leisure and what is supposed to be 're-creation' with sex, drugs & rock-and-roll in our set-up, or (for the really non-sexual) phantasies of unlimited social betterment (all of which feature coercion), that the comparative /imaginal/ poverty of the 21st century post-modern scientific thinker, as opposed to his 13th century mahometan or alchemical counter-part, is not to be wondered at.

    IN Sum, then , unexamined use of 'objective' and 'subjective' to-day are become, precisely, hopeful forms of apotropaism which less-and-less serve to keep away the boogiemen! This all is a result of our one-sidedness, so hard indeed to identify to ourselves, so fatal to ageing historical systems.

  4. ALSO (Sorry, I AM a chatterbox!), I am not so sure about the 'usual' benignity of any of this phantastical stuff, including science -- sooner-or-later, the botched & power-maddened will do evil, with whatever falls into their hands.

    AND, To the extent this all is natural, including ALL of the religions and our styrofoam litter in the ditches, this all being Nature, then when Nature 'decides on' tsunamis, asteroids or more wars (we 'think' we are so in chaarge), well, in any case then we ARE fucked & far from home (at least on the molecular scale).


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