Feb 22 2011

Does Atheism Lead to Immorality?

This is an argument that will just not go away – that atheism leads to the absence of morality. I was recently pointed to this YouTube video once again making this point. Yes – this is just some random guy (Jon Topping) on the internet, but he is trying to put forward a logical argument and he is making the standard argument¬† – the same one I have heard from many religious sources, so it’s fair game.

His argument is fundamentally a false dichotomy – objective morality comes from belief in God (or some supernatural thingy) and if you are an atheist then morality has no objective basis and your morality must ultimately be subjective, which he argues logically leads to amorality. He dismisses many straw-man alternatives but never addresses the true alternative to his simple dichotomy, something again I find common.

First, let’s address his premises. He equates atheism with belief in evolution. This is not valid, but I will give him that most atheists accept evolution, because they have no reason to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus. Where he gets into trouble is in equating evolution with doing everything you can to survive and pass on your genes, even if it means stealing and killing. This is a simplistic and outdated view of evolution – of nature “red in tooth and claw.”

Evolution is not all about competition. It is also about cooperation, even self-sacrifice. Humans in particular are a cooperative social species. We derive survival advantage from taking care of our kin, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Evolutionary forces do not lead inexorably to competition and killing.

As a social species we have evolved a number of moral senses. These include notions such as reciprocity – doing good to others so that they will do good to you. Reciprocity has been demonstrated even in many animal species. While reciprocity may be a cold calculation of evolution, that does not mean that each individual is making a cold calculation. We actually feel that being good to others is the right thing to do, and we feel that those who do bad deserve to be punished. We have a sense of justice.

Evolving in a social group and being highly invested in a few offspring also means that we genuinely love our family and our children. In fact we extend this love to our “tribe”, whatever we perceive that to be. But there is also a downside to these evolved emotions in that we may dehumanize those we categorize as being “other” or in an out group. The point is that evolution leads to a complex set of moral emotions, taboos, and social connections – not murder and rampage.

Another core point of Topping’s is that without a supernatural source of morality, all morality must be subjective. If it’s subjective, then it’s just opinion – it’s just your opinion that murder is wrong. But we know instinctively that murder is wrong, and therefore there must be some moral fiber woven into the fabric of the universe – from God – and therefore atheism is wrong. Follow that? Perhaps we “know instinctively” that murder is wrong because we evolved that moral sense because having such a sense is a survival advantage in a social group. Therefore there is no reason for a supernatural cause of our instinct.

But Topping is also ignoring the other (and in fact primary) source of non-supernatural morality – philosophy. We have an evolved morality, which is in many ways particularly human, but in many ways also is probably just generic to any highly social species. Humans also pair bond, and so we have morality about that. And we raise few children, and so we have morality about that as well. But what if a technologically intelligent species arose and developed a civilization, and this species happened to not have evolved pair-bonding as a dominant practice. What if they evolved to be promiscuous, and to have thousands of children only a few of which would be expected to survive to adulthood. It is reasonable to conclude that their evolved moral sense would be quite different from ours.

So some of our morals are specific to the human condition. But evolution is not the only source of morality. Topping denigrates as “just opinion” anything other than morals that descend from heaven. But this is another false dichotomy and straw man. Philosophers, over the past several thousand years, have worked out from first principles a system of morals and ethics that is more than opinion – it logically flows from reasonable first principles. Topping, like many critics of non-religious morality I have debated, needs to read a good book on ethics.

For example, we can start with the basic principle of equality – that all people should be considered to have equal rights. We can reason that without this principle there is no way to develop a moral system that works (at least not in a human civilization, which is the proper context). And yes, it also appeals to our evolved sense of fairness and justice. Topping gets closest to this point by referring to this as “consensus” – but it’s more than consensus. Consensus is important, but it is also logical. The implications of a moral system with and without equality have been carefully thought out by our brightest thinkers over thousands of years, and it is the only conclusion that works.

Yes – it is true that even still such a system is not 100% metaphysical certitude. But the Toppings of the world would have you believe that everything less than this hypothetical perfect certitude is just “opinion.” That position, however, is demonstrably absurd.

There are other basic principles – such as, one of those rights that everyone has equal access to is the right not to be harmed. We all have a right to our own autonomy, to be left alone, and not be harmed by others. Ethicists start with these first principles – the most basic starting points they can think of, points that make sense and that everyone can agree on, and then they proceed carefully from there, thinking through the implications of these principles. Another layer is added when we need to figure out how to resolve conflicts – what happens when basic principles conflict, which ones take precedence?

This is a solid approach to morality. It is far more than opinion – it is logical, practical, fair, and functional. It is not immutable – we as a species will debate endlessly about our moral code, which will evolve as our civilization matures and gains more experience.¬† We will also face new challenges and our moral code will have to adapt to those challenges. Such a system is not absolute, but it works and it’s the best we have. It certainly does not lead to murder, as Topping naively argues.

There is also another massive false premise in Topping’s position (which I also frequently encounter) – and that is that a moral code derived from God is objective. What he and other miss is that, even if there is a supernatural force in the universe we do not have access to it. First, it has not been established that there is a supernatural force. Topping argues that our innate moral sense is evidence of this, but that is not a valid argument since evolution is a perfectly workable explanation for such moral senses. Further, there is no evidence for any specific form of any alleged supernatural force. Humans have come up with hundreds of conceptions of what the supernatural force(s) in the universe are, and there is no objective way to distinguish among them.

So if there is a god or gods, or some vague supernatural energy to the universe, humans have not figured out yet what it is. Our tribes all disagree about the particulars, and this includes what sources are valid and moral lessons the supernatural being has for us. Do we listen to Jesus, Mohammad or Buddha? And which interpretation?

Even if we agree on a source, the moral lessons are ambiguous. The God of Moses tells his followers “thou shall not kill” and then he commands them to murder every man, woman, and child in an enemy city. So killing is OK in war, or against another tribe? Or perhaps only when a priest says that god said it was OK. (God did not come down, after all, and speak to all the people, such commands to kill were conveyed through a single priest.) This certainly puts priests in a powerful position – to dictate the will of God and interpret the ultimate morality of the universe. But what do we do when priests disagree, which they do?

Therefore there is no evidence of an objective morality to the universe, and if there were such an objective morality there is no evidence that we have any privileged access to it. We are still left to figure out for ourselves what that morality might be, and we have come up with hundreds of different and often mutually exclusive answers.

In the end, the morality of the philosophers enjoys much more sense and consensus than the morality of the priesthood.  Philosophical morality is, ironically, more objective because it follows a transparent and logical process. While faith-based morality is subjective, because it derives from authority Рthe authority of questionable, ambiguous, and conflicting sources, and the authority of those who claim to be the interpreters of those sources.

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