Friday, January 01, 2010

Atheism: No Apologies


In the past, I've used the first post of the new year to describe my resolutions. Usually, these resolutions involve fitness or parenthood or finances.

However, I am not going to write about resolutions this time. It's not that I don't have any resolutions; it's that the resolutions are the same as they always have been: love my family, work, environment, body, prospects for learning, opportunities for growth, and so on. Love them all, care for them all, face them all squarely and responsibly.

So what do I want to talk about? Atheism, of course.

At Atheist Revolution, the post on "Misunderstanding Atheism" provides an opportunity to clarify my personal stance on Atheism. Now, before I continue I can already hear some person, likely a religious person or sympathizer, getting up on hind legs to bark and bay, "You see? You atheists are complete relativists. You have no objective Truth to refer to and so every belief each one of you holds, every moral principle, is in fact a matter of personal opinion."

Let me remind such folks that religion does not confer morality. If there are objective moral truths, both belief in God and adherence to religion do a piss-poor job of communicating these truths and getting people to live by them. (These folks might also want to look at all the different denominations and variations within their objectively true religious belief.)

These folks should also review the following excerpt from philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God:
16. The Argument from Moral Truth
1. There exist objective moral truths. (Slavery and torture and genocide are not just distasteful to us, but are actually wrong.)

2. These objective moral truths are not grounded in the way the world is but rather in the way that the world ought to be. (Consider: should white-supremacists succeed, taking over the world and eliminating all who don't meet their criteria for being existence-worthy, their ideology still would be morally wrong. It would be true, under this hideous counterfactual, that the world ought not to be the way they have made it.)

3. The world itself — the way that it is, the laws of science that explain why it is that way — cannot account for the way that the world ought to be.

4. The only way to account for morality is that God established morality (from 2 and 3).

5. God exists.

FLAW 1: The major flaw of this argument is revealed in a powerful argument that Plato made famous in the Euthyphro. Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality. The question is: why did God choose the moral rules he did? Did he have a reason justifying his choice that, say, giving alms to the poor is good, while genocide is wrong? Either he had a good reason or he didn't. If he did, then his reasons, whatever they are, can provide the grounding for moral truths for us, and God himself is redundant. And if he didn't have a good reason, then his choices are arbitrary—he could just as easily have gone the other way, making charity bad and genocide good—and we would have no reason to take his choices seriously. According to the Euthyphro argument, then, the Argument from Moral Truth is another example of The Fallacy of Passing the Buck. The hard work of moral philosophy consists in grounding morality in some version of the Golden Rule: that I cannot be committed to my own interests mattering in a way that yours do not just because I am me and you are not.

FLAW 2: Premise 4 is belied by the history of religion, which shows that the God from which people draw their morality (for example, the God of the Bible and the Koran) did not establish what we now recognize to be morality at all. The God of the Old Testament commanded people to keep slaves, slay their enemies, execute blasphemers and homosexuals, and commit many other heinous acts. Of course, our interpretation of which aspects of Biblical morality to take seriously has grown more sophisticated over time, and we read the Bible selectively and often metaphorically. But that is just the point: we must be consulting some standards of morality that do not come from God in order to judge which aspects of God's word to take literally and which aspects to ignore.

COMMENT: Some would question the first premise, and regard its assertion as a flaw of this argument. Slavery and torture and genocide are wrong by our lights, they would argue, and conflict with certain values we hold dear, such as freedom and happiness. But those are just subjective values, and it is obscure to say that statements that are consistent with those values are objectively true in the same way that mathematical or scientific statements can be true. But the argument is fatally flawed even if Premise 1 is granted. [Emphasis added]
But I digress.

Atheist Revolution is responding to an article that appeared in the Corvallis Gazette-Times (OR). That article's misunderstanding of atheism is the point of departure for Atheist Revolution - hereafter AR. AR begins to correct the misunderstanding by defining Atheism:
Atheism in no way insists that there are no gods. Atheism is a response to theism. The theist claims that some sort of god or gods exist; the atheist does not accept this claim as accurate. Theism is the belief that a god or gods exist. Atheism is the absence of, or lack of, agreement with this belief. To say that an atheist does not believe in gods is an accurate statement, however, to insist that an atheist believes that there are no gods is erroneous. Atheism does not entail the conviction that there are no gods. Moreover, atheism says nothing whatsoever about the presence or absence of various unknown or unexplained phenomena. And finally, while lack of "proof" is a justification some atheists will offer for their unwillingness to accept theism, it is certainly not the only one. Other atheists would argue that they cannot accept the theistic belief claim because the concept of god is logically incoherent or undefined.
Although I agree with much of what AR says, I disagree that "Atheism in no way insists that there are no gods." As I understand Atheism, it asserts that there probably are no gods. Now, I have modified my words a bit because I don't see Atheism as making any kind of 100% insistence. But my point is that Atheism makes a positive claim: there probably are no gods because, among other things, the proof of gods existing is entirely lacking and the concept of god alternates between logical incoherence and complete vagueness. So I think AR errs to say that "to insist that an atheist believes that there are no gods is erroneous."

I also have a quibble when AR says, "Atheism is a response to theism. The theist claims that some sort of god or gods exist; the atheist does not accept this claim as accurate." On the contrary, I view theism as a response to atheism (not capital-A atheism), not the other way around. Capital-A atheism may indeed be a response to modern forms of theism. Indeed, I think this is probably so. But the lowercase-A atheism grounding capital-A atheism is not after, a consequence of, or derivative of theism. But this is me stating an opinion, and not issuing a full-fledged argument based on specific data. My point is that I see Atheism as drawing from ideas and arguments that go well beyond personal awareness of and experience with modern religion and theology.

Atheism has something important to say about the world, our assumptions about the world, and the institutions we use to teach us about the world (including religion and science). Atheism's boldest assertions must be made publicly and without apology or dilution. My Atheism seeks to make these assertions in just this way.

1 comment:

  1. Mine flatly declares 100% no God exists, however, as a fallibilist, I also declare that I could err.[1] All arguments for Him abjectly, miserably fail, and most naturalist arguments ^against Him succeed. [2] We ignostic-igtheists find that with our incompatibility arguments that as He then has incoherent, contradictory attributes, that He exists as much as that square circle or married bachelor. I go further in declaring that per Lamberth's atelic/teleonomic argument alone and with other naturalist arguments that He has no referents as Grand Miracle Monger, Grand Designer, Creator, Sustainer and so forth, that again He cannot exist!
    Mine then against Theodore Drange and Alfred Jules Ayer,pervades the naturalist arguments instead of discounting them and those of theism, only those theism are factually meaningless
    ^ The stone argument,for one, is illogical.
    Google the atelic/teleonomic argument, the ignostic-Ockham and lamberth's naturalistic arguments about God to see all this fleshed out with others' comments.

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