Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is there moral atheism?

Caveat - I was intrigued by what Mad Priest posted today so just jotted down some thoughts off the top of my head. I may soon decide I spoke too soon. But rather than clog up space at MP's, I will put it here for now and maybe later see what I can pull from it. Pardon my self-indulgence, if you will, and desire to catch the last of the afternoon rays of sunshine.
Mad Priest said:

Is there moral atheism?

In morality that is based on a religion, good and bad is objectively defined by a transcendent being dictating the behaviour of its adherents and/or the promise of reward or punishment within the context of a life that does not cease at earthly death. But why should an atheist do anything?

there is no goodness without god because there is no reason for goodness without god because without god there is no reason for anything

this doesn't mean an atheist cannot act in a moral way based on (for example) utilitarian avoidance of pain but there is no reason for an atheist to do so because there is no reason for anything without a god to give everything a reason

I'm not saying there is a god

but if it is proved that there is no god I would not consider myself a moral being. If I acted in a "good" way it would be purely out of self-interest and/or because I liked the feeling it gave me.

IT said:

Far better philosophers than I have explained how morality can be grounded in humanist values that do not need to invoke a supernatural God. If you like I will find some quotes for you since they generally say it much better than I.

Tobias' comments fit with MP's, who basically are saying the only reason that I, the atheist, am a (moral) person is that your concept of God ensures that I am. Frankly I find that condescending. But I recognize you are not trying to insult me personally, and that's what I get for hanging around a religious site.

Mad Priest said:

I am truly interested in being given an objective definition of morality based on an existence without the transcendent. I have been studying humanist ethics for years (I rarely read books on Christian ethics). The person who has been most influential on my own ethical thinking is Peter Singer (an atheist). Yet, so far, I have not come across one good reason from atheists for living life in a particular way that is based on something that isn't just an arbitrary choice. For example, the continuation of the human race. Sounds good, but if we exist for no reason then why bother. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow there is nothing.
This entire discussion makes my head spin. What does defining good and bad “objectively” have to do with a transcendent being or power (or whatever), let alone why would should be some kind of prerequisite for doing so? Any rules or structured system of morality are articulated by human beings based on human conceptions of right and wrong, whether they are based on social mores, historical traditions, civil or religious laws, or observation of how the physical universe and the creatures therein seem to operate. To tag something as coming from God – whether based on direct divine revelation, Scripture, church authorities, tradition, with or without some measure of what we call human reason – does not make it objective in the sense of being either empirically verifiable or, in religious or philosophical terms, eternally true. Assuming God exists, humans know of God and good and evil through their own human understandings and experiences.

That means any of what we think comes from God, or not, can be wrong or right, eternally false or true. The whole business of the authority of Scripture, the “responsibility” of bishops or popes or priests to tell everyone what God wants or intends is premised on the notion that certain writings and persons have the inside track. One does not even have to reach the issues of whether God exists, who or what God is, and how God operates in the world to hold in suspension any certainty as to who may speak for God and how, even assuming God is, indeed, the reason for it all.

What drives me crazy about some of the conevs, is how they rail on and on about how the evil, degenerate liberals base everything they think and do on what “feels good.” Yet here is MP, basically making the same protest, distinguishing between what God really wants and what we want based on the notion that if it “feels good” then that means we are hopelessly lost, self-centered, pleasure-seeking, truly Godless creatures who are going to do only what pleases us and nothing that pleases God (except maybe by accident, when, as MP suggests, so-called utilitarian concerns point us in the right direction). And, there’s dear Tobias as well, who reportedly shares the concern of the ++ABC and the Pope that Western civilization is riding the coattails of Christianity and that the greater our distance in time and numbers from Christianity, the further and further we will wander from both knowledge and practice of what is eternally good and right.

I’m sorry. I guess it’s time to throw in whatever claim I have to orthodox thinking, if not beliefs. I simply do not buy all of that. I do not trust the church or religion to get it right, although I do think that concerted effort to do so may, at times, bring some greater measure of knowledge and wisdom, through God’s grace, than that generally held by those who do not bother to try (but I’m not certain even of that). While I do not trust my own gut feelings or anyone else’s either, I do not think it is necessarily any more unreliable than what is “taught” by some people as Christian (or any other kind of morality). The whole uproar about homosexuality suggests to me that sometimes one’s gut is the better guide – harkening back to Huck Finn’s musings on slavery and his decision “to go to hell” rather than disregard what his gut (or heart) was telling him.

So, while I know, believe, and experience God’s presence and guidance in my life, while I respect and seriously consider what the church and others who care about morality and ethics have to say about them, what drives me to try do and be good is not because of what God may or may not do for me, on account of my faith, my works, or his grace, or because it makes me “feel good” in any kind of warm, fuzzy or pleasureful way, but because, well, God draws me to what is right, makes me feel like crap when I stray, chastises me when I am misled by my own thoughts and desires, and, whether I’m thinking or trying or not, infuses all of Creation with his order, design, and intent, even though none of us can even begin to comprehend it all.

Bottomline is that morality is based on what we subjectively feel is right for us and based on what we think is appropriate for us and others in our society – no matter how much we may talk and read and go into all sorts of gymnastics, mental, spiritual and emotional, over which ideas, rules, or systems are better, whether we think they’re from God or a wise philosopher or anyone else. We rely on our guts, what others have taught us, and what we have learned from experience, whether we call us believers or non-believers, liberals or conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Buddhist, Hindi, or atheists.

And when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure if it is not just as well to try to all agree to follow the Golden Rule or something of that nature and let the rest flow from there, regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof. For Christians we have the two great commandments, and while I “believe” the first, loving God’s with one’s whole heart is essential, I don’t know what that really means for everyone. Although no doubt both Grace and IT would have a cow over it, I can imagine that even a professed atheist could satisfy the first one if they knew on some level of something greater than themselves (even conceived in purely human terms of morality and ethics without express reference to God) and/or had some kind of basic humility. Personally, I find Christianity to be something that I not only need to embrace and live the best I can but also (although the jury is still out on this), something that I want to support and encourage others to embrace as well because I do believe in working toward building God’s Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, or whatever he wills in this regard. But my ideas or beliefs about this seems to be rather beside the point. What counts is not what I think but what I do.

I guess I don’t understand how anyone builds their life around what God may or may not do for them, why they need the hope and promise of some kind of reward to do his will, or, for some, the knowledge of his mercy if they follow what they think are his rules and thereby avoid his divine wrath. Whether one believes in a loving God, and judging and punishing one, or a complex or mysterious being or power that encompasses these and other qualities, I just don’t see how a conviction as to what he will or will not do sustains anyone because I don’t see how anyone can be certain. To me, striving for what is good and right and just is what it – life – is all about. I think and feel that the closer I am to what God wants, in the long run I will know it, if I pray and reflect and be self-critical and try to be as humble as I can. While it would be so much easier if there were a simple and detailed rulebook to follow, I look at those who treat the Bible or the Magisterium’s products in that way and my heart and soul and gut tell me, no, no, NO, they cannot be trusted to know eternal truth any more (or less) than what I can discern on my own.

That being said, where and how should any of us develop our sense or codes of morality and ethics? I don’t dispute that religious tradition is a good place to look, if only because most human cultures have looked to the religious side of things for inspiration and wisdom, although in many and perhaps most, there is no Western divide between the secular and religious. I also would look to biology, psychology, philosophy and law have to say on the matter.

While traditional “natural law” is distorted, I think, by religion and the religious thinkers who have espoused it, I think we do need to especially consider science and what it tells us about human nature and behavior. Although the evidence is still spotty and questionable, it looks like there may be elements of our physiology that lead us to altruistic behaviors and thinking in terms of causation and responsibility. Thus, there may be many “natural” tendencies in humans towards what we think as moral behavior, although learning and modeling are required as well. I think we need to stop thinking in terms of being either “naturally” deprave or even amoral and only, through the exercise of human agency and free will, becoming or trying to become “good.” It’s as though many of us cannot conceive God as anything but a being, separate and apart from us and all Creation, who dictates or directs, judges, and otherwise acts in a way we can understand as a separate, distinct entity. It may be helpful to think of him in those terms, but it seems so narrow and unnecessary to assume that we humans, supposedly made in his image, are so different from the rest of Creation because of our consciousness and ability to make far greater choices than other creatures (i.e. free will) that we do not have aspects of goodness or elements of godliness of any kind without our acting upon them in conscious devotion to God, and that we and/or other creatures are inherently self-centered and self-interested, that it life for all is some kind of horrific, toothsome, Spenglerian battle for the preservation of self, even though science tells us that it is not that simple at all, that we, like other creatures have some biological dispositions towards preserving the greater social good, loving and caring for our mates and offspring, etc.

This is meandering quite a bit. I hesitate to post my meanderings. I want to go outdoors while I still can and someday I want to seriously take up the idea of “natural law” and what that has to do, or not do, with science and morality and religious truth.

But I guess what I meant to get to was the basic question of whether we need religion for morality, to determine what is “objectively” good or bad, right or wrong? I think religion can be helpful, indeed long has, but it is not necessarily the best or only way to develop morality – in fact, in some places religion has developed such a bad name that maybe everyone would be better off focusing on civil law and international standards of human rights. It’s not that there is all there is to morality or all that God calls us to do in that regard, but I think given the evident unGodliness of much of religion, that one must consider working both within and without religious institutions and beliefs.

As usual, I’ve spilled way too many words when I want to get to something simple. I was struck by something I read in Newsweek the other day about the anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it said that the people who hid others from the killers were mostly “peasants” and not the well-educated or even religious members of society. I wonder if there may be some truth in that for all of us in the sense that those who simply care for others, exercise both compassion and commonsense as something basic and not terribly complicated or thought provoking, who just live their daily lives as good friends, neighbors, and family members, are far more likely to be closer to God and his will then all of us who talk and think and theologize and get involved in religious politics. I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if it is often better to shut up and let God be God, and stop arguing about what he wants and just work and pray and do the best we can.


Grandmère Mimi said...

This entire discussion makes my head spin. What does defining good and bad “objectively” have to do with a transcendent being or power (or whatever), let alone why would should be some kind of prerequisite for doing so?

Klady, exactly. I didn't weigh in on this one, except as the "anonymous" who left the "Nonsense" comment. I was not at my own computer, and sometimes I have difficulty signing in on Blogger.

If tomorrow it could be proved to me that neither God nor Jesus ever existed, I believe I would live my life pretty much the same way, just because I believe that it's the right way to live my life. I'm not moral because of an eternal reward or punishment in the future. If the way of the Gospel did not seem right to me, I doubt that I would try to follow it.

I know too many folks with seemingly no faith at all, who live moral and principled lives. They believe that this life is all we have, and yet they go on doing "good".

Living a moral life based on a future reward or punishment seems quite primitive. But hey! That's me. And it ain't about all the talk. It's in the doing.

klady said...

Thanks so much, Mimi. Some interesting stuff is now up on the thread over at MP's. Nancy P. and Boaz said much better what I was barely alluding to in terms of science.

Funny thing, today's sermon started with a story about an angel with a torch and a bucket -- a torch to burn down the mansions of heaven and bucket of water to put out the fires of hell -- the point, of course, being to see who would still try to please God without the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. The beginning was something like -- well, most of us have mixed motives.

In hindsight, I think what Jonathan was getting at was not whether an atheist can be moral (I can't imagine he'd deny, for example, that IT is moral), but rather whether "atheism" as a philosophy or way of life can posit a reason for morality. Having approached the question that way, however, MP rejects psychology, sociology, biology, etc. as providing answers. So what he seems to want is a "reason" that could be offered to others to persuade them or motivate them to be moral without invoking God. As Kirkepiscatoid has pointed out over there, MP won't buy any reason that doesn't appeal to him. When viewed that way, the exercise seems rather pointless, but, well, not only is its MP's place and his whims that rule, but he does somehow succeed in getting people to think and talk. There are just moments when it's hard not to read him and think, WTF? But I have no doubt that he (and many others) think the same when they read me. So...


You're right -- there are all sorts of people who are deeply moral and behave accordingly who have no religious faith at all, not to mention those of faiths other than Christianity. I have known several and seen others from a distance. That doesn't mean that there is not value in religion or that I seriously doubt that is necessary for my salvation in various ways, but I cannot see how religion is a prerequisite or source of incentives necessary for moral behavior.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I've been back to read this morning, and quite a few folks had really good things to say later in the thread. Those you mentioned, I liked, too.

Mystical Seeker said...

I am really disappointed in Mad Priest for advancing that argument. He should know better.

There was a brief discussion in my own blog that came up about this subject, after Onesmallstep left a comment. I hate to just quote myself here (seems a little self-aggrandizing), but I think I will in this case because otherwise I would just want to paraphrase what I said anyway. My response was:

The same people who complain about "moral relativism" are often the very people who defend Biblical horrors like the divinely inspired genocide in Joshua by saying that God can be as fickle and inconsistent in his morality as he wants because he is God and he makes the rules according to his own whim. They really seem to want to have it both ways.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about making statements about God's nature. The first epistle of John says that "God is love". That would be a meaningless statement unless you could actually assign some sort of consistent definition of what "love" means. If God is all over the map in terms of "his" morality and his will and we are unable to assign any independent attributes to God's nature, then saying something like "God is love" or "God is" anything else is meaningless. Either God has attributes and a nature, or he/she does not.

Mystical Seeker said...

I guess the point I was trying to make in my previous comment was that if God has a "nature,", then those attributes that we assign to God have some kind of meaning, independent of whether God exists or not. So if we say God gives us "morality", then we have to have some kind of definition of what "morality" is. And if we say that morality is just whatever God says, then does God have a "nature" that would result in consistent and meaningful moral standards? If not, then God is capricious and it is meaningless to claim, as Mad Priest does, that morality only has meaning if God exists, since God's own morality is capricious and has no indendent definition. But if God is not capricious, and God's morality is consistent and predicatble, then this morality can be described whether God exists or not. Either way, morality, for it to have any meaning, can be described whether God exists or not.

That is a wholly different question from whether this morality can be said to spring from God. People of faith may say that God is the ontological ultimate source of a consistent and predictable moral standard, but that doesn't mean that we cannot talk about this standard as an independent phenomenon.

At least, that's how I see it.

klady said...

Thank you so much for stopping by, Mystical Seeker, and my apologies for my belated reply. I'm still struggling with this whole business of natural law and morality because I think there is some merit to it, as long as one go pasts traditional natural law as envisioned by Catholic theologians and those who responded within entirely within that tradition. I frankly don't *get* the search by MP and now Rowan Williams - (see today's posting of the lecture and Tobias's marvelous response on "embodied felincity" here which includes the link to the ABC) - for some kind of ultimate reason or cause (i.e. "why bother?").

In my view the ultimate good (however defined, discovered, etc.) is God, and whether one considers that to be all or a part of God, whether God is inside, outside, or infusing all, or whatever, really doesn't matter since we all must rely and work with our limited understandings and some ways of conceptualizing work better for some than others. Nevertheless, the practical problems of how we, as humans, are to act more in accordance with this good are much the same no matter how one conceives God (or not), and although I have a great deal of respect for and attraction to mystery and mysticism, I view that more as I means for nurturing and responding to the Good. And as I get older, I get more and more impatient with spending so much time trying to figure out what it all means or where it comes from rather than act positively and productively based on what we essentially do understand.

Sorry if these are still just random thoughts, emotions, on the run. I keep trying to read and think and write a little but too much is going on in RL right now to focus very well. Anyway, thanks again for stopping by. I'll try to respond further or differently when things calm down more here in RL (teenagers, sports and school schedules, etc. are driving me ragged more than usual).