As part of my “Debate With Atheists About…Well…Just About Everything,” I wrote…
Just for the record, I DO think an atheist can be an advocate for the “good”, but it’s very, very hard, and even when it CAN be done, it’s still unnecessarily vulnerable to folks who want to say “Homey don’t play that.” Exhibit A: Islamic fundamentalists.
Needless to say, this statement – just like everything I wrote – would be vigorously opposed by most atheists. They insist that faith in God is NOT necessary for “the good.” A belief in Darwinism, materialism, atheism, etc. is sufficient for a healthy moral order.
And what IS a “healthy moral order?” That depends. There is some disagreement within the atheist community. However, I’ll tentatively divide those guys into 3 categories: The Nihilists (“all morality is an illusion;” think Nietzsche); the Objectivists (“morality DOES exist and is universal;” think Ayn Rand) and the Sentimentalists (“morality sort of exists, but is always relative;” think Richard Rorty).
I just made up the term “Sentimentalist Atheist.” And I would argue that they make up the vast majority of atheists (probably about 80%). What makes them “sentimental?” Even though they vocally loathe religion, they behave morally (for the most part) and have no interest in shedding their morality (think of Richard Dawkins or E.O. Wilson). In fact, if you studied them on a purely behavioral level – and knew nothing of their personal beliefs – you might find no difference between them and most Christians (except for praying and going to church, obviously). They marry and have children. They hold the door open for the person walking behind them. They say “Sorry” when they bump into strangers accidentally. They pay their taxes. They abstain from crime. And they even donate to charity (except to religious charities, of course).
How do we account for this behavior? Is it “logical” for an atheist to behave this way? And would a society completely composed of atheists behave this way? Let’s find out.
For starters, let's look at a brief dialogue between me and “Grant,” which arose from the comment section of one of my previous essays.
Todd: Personally, when I was an atheist, I was just as “moral” as I am today as a theist, but it was a “folk morality.” I knew – on an intellectual level – that morality was an illusion, but I “liked” being moral, and why? Probably because I had spent 15 years absorbed in a Christian culture, and still had the residue of faith on my soul. Being “bad” morally made me feel “bad” emotionally…
I think the morality of atheists is a consequence of being born and raised in a religious culture for a long, long time before they even begin to question their faith. As religious culture fades away (partly because of the efforts of atheists, btw) morality (among atheists and theists, too) is likely to wither away…
In today’s age, an atheist almost certainly has to be a materialist, and a materialist almost certainly has to be a Reductionist. And how do Reductionists see human beings? According to them, we're just mindless meat puppets manipulated by our selfish genes to survive and reproduce. Does that seem like a positive attitude toward humanity? Is that an ideology that can sustain human dignity? I think not. And once we absorb that attitude toward our fellow man, is there anything beyond fear of the law that can motivate a person to respect the lives of others? No. Once you start peeling the onion a little bit, you see that atheism is intellectually defenseless against the subjection and destruction of humanity. One caveat, though: It is not so much the disbelief in God that is lethal; it is the reductionist materialism that is the foundation of atheism…
Grant: While it's fascinating to hear you explain to me what I almost certainly must be I think I'll fall back on the fact that I have known hundreds of atheists and never met a single one who thinks people are "mindless meat puppets."
Todd: Ah, now we’re coming to the nub of the matter. I’ll try to incorporate your statement into a new observation: While atheists DO think people are “mindless meat puppets” in a scientific sense (sorry, but that is exactly how atheism is articulated by people like Dawkins and Dennett), the atheists DON’T ACT like people are “mindless meat puppets.” They still act like people have inherent dignity. And that’s good! They are resisting the teachings of their leaders. They can’t overcome their desire to live in a teleological, moral order. And again, that’s good! So the question becomes…Why can’t atheists understand that? Why can’t they see the discrepancy between their philosophical atheism and their daily behavior? If they COULD see it, they might question their atheism, and start groping toward a new spirituality.
Grant is a “sentimental atheist.” He is an all-too-common child of modern civilization. He assumes he’s the pinnacle of civilization because he’s smart, tolerant, and liberal. In truth, he’s the red-headed stepchild of civilization. The rest of the family doesn’t accept him. And why should they? They realize what the atheist does not: The atheist is a luxury of civilization, not a creator of it. I’m almost tempted to call atheists “free riders” on the Western moral tradition. A harsher person might call them “parasites” (drawing nutrition from their hosts, while weakening them), but I’ll refrain from using such a pejorative term.
“NO!!” shout the atheists. “You have us all wrong!!!” For Christ’s sake, how many times do we have to tell you: You don’t need God to be ‘good!’”
Larry Anhart is one of those atheists. He is a professor at Northern Illinois University, author of the book, Darwinian Conservatism, and the main contributor of a blog by the same name. I haven’t read Prof. Arnhart’s book, but I did read one of his most recent blog entries: Do Human Rights Require Religious Beliefs?
Prof. Arnhart realizes that most people would automatically answer: “Yes, it does.” He opens…
What difference would it make if we accepted what Bernard Williams has called "Nietzsche's thought"--"there is, not only no God, but no metaphysical order of any kind"?
One consequence, Nietzsche suggested, is that we could no longer believe that human beings were created by God in His Image and thus endowed with equal dignity. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote: "The masses blink and say: 'We are all equal.--Man is but man, before God--we are all equal.' Before God! But now this God has died." The modern morality of human equality is secularized Christian morality that cannot be continued after the death of God.
Does this mean, then, that we could no longer hold it to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights?...
These are the questions raised by Michael J. Perry in his book Toward a Theory of Human Rights… Perry asks: "For one who believes that the universe is utterly bereft of transcendent meaning, why--in virtue of what--is it the case that every human being has inherent dignity?". If we have no answer to that question, Perry insists, then we have no answer to those human beings who assert that they have the right to exploit and abuse other human beings because what we call right is really just the rule of the stronger…
The failure to provide a cosmic standard of value is also why Perry rejects the positions of Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty, who say that human rights rest upon human sympathy and solidarity. Nussbaum and Rorty believe that the lives of human beings have value in so far as we care for them. The idea of human rights is promoted by extending our moral sentiments to embrace ever wider circles of humanity.
Perry objects to this sentimental morality that although normal human beings--those who are not psychopaths--do care for some other human beings, particularly those of their family or tribe, it is not true that normal human beings care for all other human beings equally and impartially…
William Schulz is the former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. In his book In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All, he dismisses appeals to God or Nature or Reason as insufficient to sustain the morality of human rights. Instead, he agrees with Richard Rorty in relying on David Hume's insight that morality depends on sympathy and the moral emotions that incline us to care for our fellow human beings…
He goes on to say:
"Robert Frost once observed that poems begin with a lump in the throat, and I think human rights do too. . . . far better than by appeals to God or Nature, is to point to the capacity to identify with others, the capacity for human empathy or solidarity"...
But notice the implications of this. This view of morality as rooted in the moral emotions of evolved human nature does not appeal to any metaphysical "beyond" for cosmic support. Those like Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and Perry would say that without such a metaphysical foundation, morality is impossible. Those analytic philosophers today who look to pure logic to prove the principles of moral obligation as inherent in the logical order of things continue in this Platonic tradition...
There is a foundation for human dignity, but it's not a transcendent or transhuman foundation--God, Nature, or Reason--but the empirical foundation of evolved human nature as the source of sympathy and the moral sense.
I give Prof. Arnhart a lot of credit: This is probably the best defense of how morality can be justified by Darwinian atheism that we will ever see. The question is: Does it work?
As you would probably expect, I have to answer “No.” Why? Well, because there’s a few contradictions. And they’re big ones. In the heart of his essay, Arnhart writes…
[Perry] hasn't made a good case for his claim that religious belief necessarily supports a morality of universal love or egalitarian humanitarianism. He admits that in practice, much of the history of religion is a history of brutality. But he would say that this comes from the failure of believers to live up to the true teaching of their religion.
Assuming Arnhart agrees with Perry’s criticism of religion (and I think that’s an excellent assumption), we have several unresolved questions that need to be addressed.
First, if humanity has experienced a “history of brutality” – whether in the name of religion, racism, class struggle, or whatever – it certainly puts a major cramp on the idea that humanity has an intuitive moral sense.
The idea that morality is “innate” has been pushed by Darwinists who account for morality as a product of evolution, but it is also very popular among certain Christians, who say it’s evidence of God’s existence and His benevolence.
Personally, I strongly disagree with the idea of an intuitive “moral law.” That’s one of the reasons I find C.S. Lewis – arguably the most famous Christian apologist – so useless.
Last year, I wrote…
According to Mr. Lewis, every human being is born with an “intuitive” understanding of “right and wrong.” This is just plain false. Every mother and father will confirm that NO child is born with an “intuitive” sense of “right and wrong.” Rather, those children must be TAUGHT to understand the difference – and the best way to understand THAT difference is through REASON (although, especially in the early years, social conformity and a few spankings might help).
Lewis’ further explanation that the Holocaust is proof of this “moral law” that is “commonly known to all human beings?” Oh really? I would beg to differ. The fact that SS guards laughed while shooting innocent women and children in the concentration camps and then mailed photos of their crimes to their families back home certainly negates any theory that “right and wrong” is “intuitive” in human beings. The fact that even today, in most Muslim cultures, teenage girls who are raped are then MURDERED by their own parents (to cleanse the “shame” on their family) shows that there are no universal, intuitive standards of “right and wrong.”
While both Christians and Darwinists are wrong to posit an intuitive “moral law,” it is the Darwinists who suffer most if such a law does not exist. Why? Because – as Arnhart’s essay shows – the idea of a “moral sense” is the only thing stitching together a coherent atheist defense of morality. If the “moral sense” goes, so does the idea of atheist morality.
However, an atheist might argue: Even if you’re right, how do you account for Arnhart’s observation that emotional appeals to compassion work on both atheists and believers (as demonstrated by the founder of Amnesty’s experience)?
Easy. See my discussion with “Grant” above. “Amnesty” is a product of modern Western Civilization. The people who finance “Amnesty” – which include Christians AND Atheists - are also products of that civilization. They were raised on the nourishment of that civilization, whose food is faith, and whose water is reason.
As I wrote on Sep. 22:
For thousands of years of human history, life all across the world life was - to quote Hobbes - "nasty, brutish, and short." Then, in one small region of the world in one brief window of time, a civilization emerged in which people (on average) lived for 75+ years in excellent health, enjoyed an economic quality of life unimaginable to their ancestors, experienced freedom from tyranny and violence, and entertained nearly limitless opportunities for creativity and self-expression.
This civilization (first blossoming in the US, Great Britain, France, and Holland in the 18th century, spreading to most of Western Europe by the late 19th century, and spreading even into remote corners like Latin America by late 20th century) was no accident. And it was not inevitable. It was a coming together of a religion and a philosophy.
As I wrote in January...
I've never felt comfortable when politicians describe America as a "Judeo-Christian country" or reaffirm the need to preserve our "Judeo-Christian values"...It defines our country, our values, and our heritage through religion alone.
About a year ago, I coined the term "Christian-Enlightenment" because it combines the religion of the West (Christianity) with the ground-breaking Enlightenment ideas (freedom, reason, the Scientific Method, etc.) that enabled the West to dominate the world.
Ethiopia is a "Judeo-Christian" country, but it's one of the worst countries on Earth because it doesn't have the Enlightenment heritage of Europe and the United States.
The West is a product of the "Christian-Enlightenment." The "Christian Enlightenment" unlocked the "genius of man" - the genius of the rational man - unencumbered by religious superstition or political oppression. But how many people in the West realize that? Not many. And therein lies our problem. How can we preserve Western civilization when so few of us understand it?
The atheists obviously don’t understand it. If faith and reason are the vital ingredients of our civilization, to claim (as they do) that atheism and emotion can – by themselves – sustain our civilization is a pure fantasy, to put it mildly (For more on this topic, see my essay, “Will Western Civilization End in Your Lifetime? Yes, Probably”).
So Anhart’s theory is dead. There is no intuitive moral sense, and whatever morality we DO possess is TAUGHT to us by a civilization that requires faith, not atheism. The “Sentimental Atheists” – like Arnhart – are free to live their lives and advocate their ideas, but the rest of us have no obligation to take their ideas seriously.
So if the Sentimental Atheists can’t defend morality, and the nihilistic atheists obviously deny morality, can ANY form of atheism work in a moral sense? The only remaining candidate is “Objectivism” – the gospel of reason articulated by Ayn Rand and her followers.
I am sympathetic to Objectivism (without the atheism, of course), because I share the Objectivists’ belief that 2 axioms are the foundation of any moral order: 1) Reality exists, and 2) Reason is the best means to master Reality. From those 2 axioms, Rand developed a cohesive, self-confident moral philosophy, expressed in Atlas Shrugged.
But does it work? Well, it used to. But not now.
As I wrote on Sep. 18...
I think--at one time, decades ago--it was possible for an atheist to be a full partner in the fight to preserve Western civilization. Ayn Rand comes to mind. So does Karl Popper. They loved freedom and America, and just as importantly, they loved mankind. They also lived in a more innocent time (1940s/50s)--a time before Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and the rest of the Reductionist movement.
Today, atheism equals reductionism. Reductionism is the idea that we're all mindless meat puppets manipulated by our selfish genes to survive and reproduce. Even human reason (which was championed by Rand) is impotent in the reductionist/atheist worldview. As David Brooks says, "Reason is just the press secretary of the emotions."
As we've discussed before, a free republic has to believe that its citizens have the capacity for reason and morality (two things denied by the atheist/reductionist crowd). Otherwise, it is intellectually defenseless against Washington elites who want to lead their brethren around by the nose.
In conclusion, for me, it's not the principle of atheism ("no God") that is incompatible with Western civilization; it is the modern practice of atheism ("reductionism") which denies not only God's existence, but the existence of a truly rational, moral human being.
Ayn Rand belonged to a more innocent time. In her era, one could be a materialist/atheist, and still believe in reason/morality. But if the materialist insists that reason is an illusion, where does that leave rational moralists, like today’s Objectivists? The Objectivists are like dinosaurs who are still groping around the Earth after the asteroid destroyed their habitat. With Reductionism toxifying their intellectual landscape, they have no way to survive. Today, the only “fit” atheist is a Reductionist – whether of the nihilist kind or the sentimental kind.
Of course, as Reductionism gains more intellectual power, even the sentimental atheists will lose ground. After all, the Western Civilization that nurtures their sentimentalism is dying. And thus, in the coming decades, the nihilists will predominate in the atheist community. "Sentimental Atheists" like E.O Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Larry Arnhart, Dennis Mangan, and Luke Muehlhauser are all products of their time, and “the times, they are a changing.”
So to quote Casey Stengel: “Can ANYONE play this game?” Yes, one type of atheist. The atheist who acknowledges that atheism IS toxic – both to the individual and society – but is still an atheist because – with a heavy heart – they've concluded that atheism must be true. And how many atheists advance such a view? Very few. I certainly haven’t met any in my online discussions. And in the culture at large, I cant even think of anyone– although I’m tempted to put John Derbyshire on the list.
Derbyshire is a Darwinist, a Reductionist, and officially a “Myseterian” – which, in practice, is little different from atheism. So let’s call Derbyshire an atheist, shall we? Why does he have value? Because he’s honest enough to admit the problems with atheism, and thus – despite his atheism – he can show the advantages of faith. What kind of atheism is this? Let’s call it “Self-Loathing Atheism.”
At the start of this essay, I wrote…
I DO think an atheist can be an advocate for the “good”, but it’s very, very hard, and even when it CAN be done, it’s still unnecessarily vulnerable to folks who want to say “Homey don’t play that.” Exhibit A: Islamic fundamentalists.
I stand by all that. Atheism can’t advance the "good." Indeed, it directly opposes the "good." The modern synthesis of atheism with reductive materialism is a triumph of nihilism. In that sense, the most "logical" form of atheism is nihilism. That's why the power of nihilism will grow. And that's also why - from society's perspective - the only useful atheist is one who acknowledges the horror of atheism. In short, a “self-loathing atheist.”
And yet, I’m still supposed to believe that atheism is the wave of the future? If it is, it’s a very bleak future indeed.
**UPDATE, DEC. 20, 2009**
Part of this essay - along with some new commentary - has been cross-posted at Larry Auster's website.
Did you coin the category, "sentimental atheists"? It is brilliant. That's exactly what they are. Having no solid, rational basis for moral truth, they are sentimental and emotional about moral truth. There are these things such as morality or conservatism that they WANT to believe in, though they have no solid grounds for them. This makes them sentimentalists.I also wrote:
Not to sound like Hegel or anything, but I believe that--over time--major philosophical contradictions are unsustainable. They will inevitably resolve themselves. We see that, for instance, in modern America: Our decades-long mix of socialism with freedom has brought us to a crossroads: Will we have socialism? Or will we have freedom? Because we are rapidly reaching a point where it will be impossible to have both. In the same vein, "sentimental atheism" is a strange mix of something good (love of morality), and something awful (atheism), but the awful part is becoming so big that a choice will have to be made: Morality or Atheism? And if you can't make a choice, you will become irrelevant.Dennis Mangan picked up on Auster's entry and responded here.
Dennis wrote (in part)...
We know that many atheists, perhaps the great majority, behave morally, e.g., they care for their children, are not common criminals, and so on. Therefore moral behavior does not require religious belief.
I think the relevant question isn’t so much “can an individual be moral without religious belief?” Yes, I think he can. And the evidence you cite above is sufficient. That is the behavior of a “sentimental atheist.” The better question is, “can atheism – by itself – be a motivator for moral behavior?” As I said in my essay (which I encourage you to read), I think the answer is "no."
In your entire blog post today, you never articulate what is the motivation for an atheist to be moral. That’s because there is none. What looks like motivation is merely the product of being born and raised in a Christian-Enlightenment culture, and developing an understandable attachment to such a great culture. It’s not the behavior of atheists that’s at issue; it’s their lack of appreciation for how religion itself – specifically, Christianity – has built the entire artifice that surrounds you. A purely atheist culture (or even a mostly atheist culture) would descend into barbarism very quickly, as I explained in my essay.
An atheist who understood this essential point might have different policy priorities, including ensuring that religion continues to be an active part of U.S. society (in contrast to say, Europe). As you point out, an atheist wouldn’t necessarily become an advocate of open borders (to use your example). But he might, say, be comfortable with allowing criticism of Darwinism to be taught in public schools. That’s just one example.
**UPDATE, JAN. 4, 2010**
To see the best of Mangan's comment thread, Sentimental Theists, click here.