Atheism and Morality -- The Straw Man Of The HNN

I've been writing a series on Richard Carrier's attempted rebuttal of J.P. Moreland's argument on Morality found in his book Scaling the Secular City. (Carrier's original essay can be found here and the first part of this series can be found here, the second part can be found here, and the third part can be found here.) Coincidentally, in my e-mail today came the e-newsletter from the Humanist News Network which linked to an article entitled HNN Readers Share Stories of Morality without God. The newsletter starts off with the following comment:

You've probably heard the straw man argument used by religionists who claim that people can't act morally without belief in God.

Actually, I've never heard any Christians claim that "people can't act morally without belief in God." In fact, I just googled the statement "atheists cannot act morally" and found nothing written by any "religionist" in the first few pages that took that position. In my own series, I have not taken that position and stated several times just the opposite.

Now, it is of course true that I haven't read everything in the world, and there are probably some people out there who have made this silly argument. However, I don't believe that the view being criticized at the Humanist News Network is the least bit common or widespread -- at least in Christian circles. Rather, the argument that Christians make isn't that atheists cannot be moral people, but rather they have no firm philosophical basis for acting morally or for even determining what is moral in any absolute notion of the word. That is the argument that is made and debated related to atheism and morality -- not some silly argument that atheists cannot act morally.

Is any organized Christian groups or any well-respected Christian thinker actually claiming that atheists cannot act morally? I doubt it. It seems to me that if anyone is setting up a straw man argument it is the Humanist News Network.


SteveiT1D said…

This is an excellent point you have made. I find that when secular humanists (online, generally) are challenged to support their moral premises, they take it as a personal affront on their character. I often hear their stories of moral fortitude and how Gregory S. Paul’s study has proven that countries with “religion” are worse off. However, as you pointed out, this is a straw man argument; because to challenge a person’s moral system is not the same thing as identifying them as immoral. Moral behavior can be grounded in a universal law, or arbitrary choice (concealed among varying secular philosophies used to explain ethics).

The fact that unbelievers may lead morally upright lives doesn’t mean that their respective belief-systems are equally successful in warranting their moral behavior as Christianity does (as your series on Carrier vs. Moreland demonstrates). As you may know, secular humanism is just a heist of Christian morality stripped of God. The secular/humanist community is borrowing Christian moral principals and using our own moral capital to argue against Christianity. So when the Christian challenges their moral premises, perhaps it’s time for them to finally foot the bill on their own moral system instead of telling us how good they are with kids and how many old ladies they help across the road (tongue in cheek).

So, as long as unbelievers are raising moral objections, what is their secular argument for morality? Carrier already conceded that secularism doesn’t provide a firm basis for morality and argues that neither does Christianity. But as you have been diligently arguing, Carrier is mistaken. In short, it appears that secular moral arguments share the same fate (and strikingly similar demeanor) as the black knight

/end rant

Now back to the shadows….
Tenax said…
BK and BF,

BF makes a striking point: secular humanist morality, generally, is 'Christian morality stripped of God.' I've never noted this. Christian societies may fall tragically short of humane behavior, but there is no doubt that overall the NT sets a very high, egalitarian, even humanistic, standard, that the NT has affected the way individual human worth has been viewed for centuries, even if from underneath. The early Christians were reaching for the best inside themselves they could find; they were reaching beyond that. Often failing, yes, but reaching. I may be off point, but I think of the famous account of the torture of two early Christian slave women: 'they were known in the community as deaconesses.' Women, slaves, but deaconesses.

I've heard people say Islam needs a Reformation just as Christianity and Judaism have had Reformations. I know very little about Islam, but I do know how Christian ethics have been expressed since the first century. I know our Reformation wasn't focused on limiting national aggression or even not killing heretics (a number of people died in the Reformation). No, Christianity has been special since its inception and it has had worldwide impact.

This is a fascinating series, BK. It's an old question (I think of Socrates/Plato contra the sophists). Of course anyone can choose to act kindly to his neighbor: atheist, Christian, Buddhist, sophist. Few have a philosophical reason for doing so. Perhaps to ask for one violates the limits of philosophy (do I have to have a reason to show mercy or compassion?) I'm surely not asking atheists to begin to act hurtfully if they feel the impulse to get more in line with their theology! Perhaps the social contract, promoting the happiness of others by limiting my own instincts, is a philosophical argument in itself. However...what if I don't feel like showing compassion though I know I 'should.'

Carrier, at his best as Bruce quotes him below, argues that we hate villains; most of us do. But I hear a few things in this passage: I hear echoes of a universal, non-relative love-based ethic; I hear a moral imperative: we must obey this universal ethic. Why? Because it is biological? If so, surely I must choose which biological instinct to follow, the biological piece that tells me to love my neighbor by refusing when his wife tries to seduce me, and the other piece that tells me to sleep with his wife behind his back (and/or my own spouse's), at the risk of hurting these others, so that I may enhance my own enjoyment. In short, Carrier draws on the human conscience with what might now be called a common-sense approach to ethics, but part of that common sense approach is based on Christian presuppositions about the nature of human beings. Carrier sounds Christian in that passage, or Platonist, without the non-material foundation. This is his right. But it's worth pondering.

Still, as I said before, I think not everybody has the same desire to choose to place the needs of others over their own needs (whatever they say they believe about God). This gets very complicated, with issues of ethnocentrism at the heart of many decisions in history (of course we can kill the men, enslave the women, take the land...they're OTHER).
Beyond national violence, though, some individuals find pleasure in hurting, taking, cheating, even within the 'tribe;' they will do so to further their happiness or comfort or to increase their sense of power. They may be biological aberrations (if so there have been a lot of them), but couldn't they say the same of me? Without a higher authority, a God or Form of the Good, I have no philosophical reason to condemn them. If God is dead and we're beyond good and evil, well, we're beyond it. The biggest monkeys can take what they want.

Another critical question, and one I see often on skeptic sites, is whether Christianity changes the person. I can't say if it does so in a way unique from, say, Buddhism or Hinduism (though Christian ethics, without doubt, have entered here: think of Ghandi's reformation of caste), but I know without doubt it's changing me. I've seen Christianity make drastic changes in a number of individuals. This is much more than social control. It's changed people.

And one very last thing. I write off parts of the Tanakh, the OT, as non-divine because of the way G-d is portrayed. Skeptics do the same (and further non-fundamentalist inquiry of scripture, an important gain) but they are in fact using Jesus' own ethical distillation. Or maybe Socrates'. The original readers of the OT would have had no problem with the invasions and violence in Cannan, anymore than most of us do with hearing about Valley Forge or D-day or the battle in 1812 when our national anthem was written.

This is getting so long, and I'm spending so much time sorting through my thoughts as I write, I should have made this a post on my own blog. But I'll toss it up here anyway. Thanks BK for the thought-provoking links and discussion.
Anonymous said…
I'll let Carrier know of these essays.

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