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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Where the rules no longer apply.

Recently I have been troubled by a particular issue. This isn't a new thing for me; I'm often mulling over one issue or another, but usually this is little more than idle thought to keep me entertained when I'm otherwise unoccupied. How else can you explain things like this? My present thoughts, however, are not entertaining as I'm particularly bothered. To wit, I've been thinking about where morality stems from for atheists, and how to explain it to others.

My reasons for this are really two-fold. The first reason is that my Sainted Girlfriend is a regular participant in a Unitarian Universalist youth group (please note: UU youth groups extent to age thirty. Therefore the fact that I'm dating someone in a church youth group does not mean that I am a pedophile) and one of her fellow members seems to find me a little puzzling. I think this is because I am a materialist atheist and this knowledge has generated in him a burning desire to know more about my views. Specifically, this burning desire has manifested in a request (delivered via my Sainted Girlfriend) that I complete a homework assignment that amounts to, "Explain the basis of your epistemology and moral system." I suppose I'm game for this except for two major drawbacks. These drawbacks are, (a) I'm really not interested in explaining it and, (b) I know most folks find the basis of my ethical system to be rather unsatisfying. This doesn't bother me- after all, it really just has to satisfy me- but it does tend to result in lengthy, entirely pointless conversations with other people. A little like this blog, except that I can't just turn it off whenever I want. And remember, folks, life is really all about me.

The other reason this has been on my mind is because of a recent column written by two gentlemen who are collectively known as (and I swear I'm not making this up) the God Squad. Now, this particular entry was brought to my attention by everyone's favorite irrascible bad-boy, the Raving Atheist, and reads as follows:

Question: If there is no God, are morals and ethics still a good thing?

N.H. via e-mail

Answer: The brief answer is no. To quote Dostoevsky in "The Brothers Karamazov": "If there is no God, all things are permitted." Now it is true that there are many moral atheists and many corrupt theists. However, it's our view that moral atheists have some inner idea of absolute truth, which is the functional equivalent of a belief in God's moral law. Otherwise, depending only on one's personal point of view, Hitler and Mother Teresa could be considered morally equivalent. The point of ethics is that something must be universal to be true.

"Thou shalt not murder" must be morally correct for all, not just for anyone who decides it is true because of some personal intuition. Why murdering innocent people is morally wrong, if it is not wrong because God says it is wrong, depends solely on the ability of unaided human reason to set and defend the absolute truth of moral claims.

Some philosophers have asserted that this could be done (Aristotle, Kant and Hegel), and others have said that moral claims are essentially personal statements of culturally relative preferences (Nietzsche, Hume, Camus, for example).

Natural law theology (Aquinas, Maimonides) offers a compromise by stating that both unaided human reason and biblical revelation can take us to the same moral truths. The question of why a person should be good if there is no God remains one of the great and enduring moral questions.

Woody Allen's "Match Point," brilliantly presents the case for nihilism, the belief that there is no God, no justice and no governing moral law in the universe, only dumb luck that lets some guilty people go free and some innocent people suffer. If you can live with that dark, dismal and despairing vision of an amoral universe, well, then, God bless you.


This response to a simple question, frankly, annoys the ever-living shit out of me. Mainly because my response would begin with, "The brief answer is yes..." and move on from there. The God Squad (and I have a hard time using that term and not feeling like I'm mocking someone) takes the position that atheists, by definition, can't be ethical or moral unless they have some sort of deep-seated concept of absolute moral truth which is, itself, equivalent to a god concept. More likely they mean, "Unless, deep down, they really do believe in god." Yes, I am putting words in their mouth here but, in my defense, it isn't like this is the first time I've encountered this argument, even if they have gone to the trouble of dressing it up "nicely."

Now, the natural thing to do here would be to explain how atheists can be moral people without believing in god and, additionally, to expand on where atheists derive morality from. This is not, however, what I choose to do. I don't speak for all atheists and I suspect that if you got us all together, we'd have some serious arguing to do before we could settle on a common ethical system- even if such a settlement was possible, which I doubt. The aforementioned Raving Atheist, as an example, is staunchly pro-life whereas I, another atheist, am strongly pro-choice. So, hey, we're a diverse crowd.

No, what I choose to do is something else: to explain that the theists in the crowd don't really deal with a different situation when it comes to ethics than we atheists. Consider for a moment, if you will, the difference between theistic and atheistic ethical systems. The only fundamental contrast is this: theistic systems derive their ethics from god (i.e. the "will of god" or, more accurately, "do what you're told because God is bigger than you are") whereas atheistic systems do not. And, of course, if you don't get your ethics from god then you're left with the messy problem of deciding for yourself what is ethical and what is not. Certainly, these decisions are made using a guiding philosophy, but philosophies are a dime a dozen, and proving one to be superior to another is a rather elusive goal.

With me so far?

Okay, now to this point it sounds like atheists have the short end of the stick: we have to try and puzzle out ethics with a lot of thought and, in the end, may get it wrong, while the theists can rely on their infinitely powerful, all-knowing sky beast to sort the righteous from the depraved. The problem, however, arises when we note how poorly this derivation-from-divinity seems to work. Consider for a moment: how many religions have the same ethical system? Now, I don't mean "similar" ethical systems- I suspect most common sets of ethics have more to do with fostering pro-social behavior than anything else- I mean identical. After all, if ethics derive from god, then all theists should have the same ethics, right?

Right?

Okay, obviously we have a problem here. For Jews, god seems to have some peculiar notions about food which would certainly seem to be part of his ethics. Some of these notions seem to be shared with Muslims but, then again, their own system is also quite different. And don't get me started on the views of other systems, like Hinduism, that have rules about the treatment of livestock that are fairly intense. Clearly different religions don't agree on what the will of god is, even as it pertains to something as minor as eating habits. Within the same faith, we also find some problems with the idea that ethics come from god. Some branches of Christianity clearly believe that god forbids abortion but, then again, not all christians agree. So much is obvious from the GSS data, which shows that in 2004 approximately 34% of all those identifying as Christian (combined figure for Protestants and Catholics, although disaggregating them doesn't make much difference) reported that a woman should be able to obtain an abortion for any reason. If not all Christians agree on someting as serious as abortion, we can only imagine that things get even more dicey for moral issues that are more abstract. Fraud for example.

So, we're left with a situation in which theists don't all agree on what ethics are the "right" ethics, and even those theists who nominally believe in the same god don't agree. Apparently, determining god's will is a tough business. Which is, as you might have guessed, exactly my point. Those who believe in god have to decide what they believe is right the same way that atheists do. Each theist is attending to their doctrines, certainly, but at the end of the day, those doctrines do not fully determine a person's morality. If they did, then questions like abortion would be perfectly split by religious lines. As should already be apparent, they aren't. No, theists have the same messy task that atheists do- they have to think about the issues and decide for themselves. So what's the difference between theists and atheists then?

Simply this: for atheists, this decision making process is apparent, but for theists it's hidden. When a theist reaches an ethical decision, that decision is then attributed to god thereby removing the reasoning for it from view. Moreover, this attribution process doesn't just remove the reasoning from view, it transfers responsibility for that stance, and its consequences, away from the person. The theist can answer any question about the "why" of their ethics by simply answering that, "God says so!" But atheists have no such luxury. The difference isn't that the decision is made differently, but rather that the account of that decision is different.

In physics there is a thing known as a singularity. A singularity usually occurs in a region of powerful gravitational fields- like the center of a black hole and is remarkable in that it is a place where the normal laws of physics break down. In essence, the warping of spacetime is so extreme, that matter, energy, and the very elementary forces themselves can transmute into a diversity of new forms. Many, if not most, singularities are thought to be shielded from view by an event horizon, or a boundary that electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) cannot escape. So, information can enter an event horizon but having done so, and after encountering the singularity, it cannot leave. It's probably just as well that this is so, since singularities could theoretically wreak havoc with our physical models and make the universe a much less predictable place than it seems to be. Still, there is the persistent idea of a naked singularity- a singularity that is not cloaked by an event horizon and is, therefore, fully visible to the rest of the universe in all of its chaotic glory. One can only imagine the protean splendor of such an object, doubtless both majestic and terrifying in equal measures.

I bring all this up not because I want to raise physics literacy (although that's nice too) but because I think an analogy here is apt. The decisions that we make about what is right and what isn't comprise a sort of mental singularity. It isn't a special faculty, or a sense of god's will, but rather a process that underlies our moral senses- even if that process was given to us by our society. Moreover, in that our decisions are ultimately our own, this mental singularity has the power to transmute anything it comes into contact with. Good can become evil, and vice versa, with a stroke of the mental brush. The chaos of the singularity is contained within us all.

From this we understand that the difference between theists and atheists is not that one of us has a singularity and the other does not, but that some of us cloak that singularity with the event horizon known as god. God is inscrutable, he works in mysterious ways, and so he throws an impenetrable darkness around that which terrifies us- our own responsibility for deciding, and our own falibility in doing so. Atheists differ from theists only in that this shroud is unavailable- the moral singularity remains visible in its horrid magnificence.

Ahteists and theists are not so different. We both must confront the responsibility of being human. We all must grapple with the difficulty of trying to do what is right, when the very definition of "right" seems impossible to resolve for certain. For theists, this hardship can be wrapped up in pretty paper, tied down and given a name, a face, and an address that makes it seem less scary.

But atheists must always face that place where the rules no longer apply.

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