|A contemplative Dostoevsky|
You see, when theists resort to asking what moral values unbelief has to offer, it often means those theists have very nearly lost their faith, have virtually accepted that atheism is probably more "correct" than theism.
Extraordinarily, the latter part of that last sentence in fact came almost verbatim out of the mouth of infamous theist Dr. William Lane Craig in a 2011 debate with Sam Harris on morality, when Craig, in his opening statement, said "Maybe Dr. Harris is right. That atheism is true." Craig's point was that it does not matter whether or not a god exists; all that matters is whether or not objective moral values--absolute moral values--can come out of a world without a god, without holy texts telling us what to do.
Here's the thing, though. The moment someone leaves aside arguments for whether or not a deity exists and begins asking how someone can live morally as an atheist, you should begin to look at them with suspicion. The moral argument is important, to be sure, since a world without any morals would not be a pleasant world to live in. But it is an "extra" argument. If there is a god, we must live under its moral code; if there is not, we do not have to. The moral argument cannot say whether or not a deity exists. After all, we can--and do--easily follow the ethics of many thinkers from many cultures and time periods without subscribing to their other views. More broadly, we can accept some of the things people put out into the world without accepting everything they put out. Many people in the world today love Wagner's operas; it would be foolish to assume that all or many of them are unfaithful to their spouses and/or despise Jews. In the same way, we can accept certain ethical ideas from, say, the bible without accepting anything else from it.
|Confucius say, Follow this blog.|
So, when a theist begins resorting to the question of how one can live a morally fulfilling life as an atheist, there is a good chance they either have no arguments for their supernatural claims or even that they are already more or less unbelievers or agnostics themselves. After all, if your foundation rests on whether or not the system is good, you are allowing for the possibility that the system in question--a religion--is replaceable by something else and thus allowing for the possibility that it can be discounted if something more ethically fulfilling comes along.
But the other side of the moral argument about whether or not everything is permitted is much more disturbing for theists than they often imagine. If you argue that there are no absolute moral laws in a godless world, you are conveniently ignoring an absolutely significant fact about the god of the bible (a fact that can also apply to any omnipotent deity). The god of the bible has absolute control over us, we are told, and anything he wants, he must get. If he wishes to revise his ten commandments, you better believe they will be revised. If he tells you to sacrifice your son to prove your faith--as he reportedly told Abraham to do to his own son, Isaac--you must do it. If he tells you to commit genocide--as he repeatedly not only tells people in the bible to do but actually assists in doing--you must do it. And if he decides to murder you through an almost unavoidable flood--the ultimate genocide, ecocide--you must give up yourself for dead.
If you haven't realized it by now, here's the disturbing thing: following this god leads to almost the same thing Dostoevsky feared--that there could be a world in which any and every action, including murder, can be morally justified. This world? The bible's.
The only thing is that Dostoevsky's dictum needs to be rephrased. In a biblical world, it's not that everything is permitted; it's that "with god, everything can be permitted' or "with god, everything can be commanded." Anything can become moral at any moment, if this absolute dictator of truth wills it to be as such. This is unquestionably the least moral of systems.
But this does not, firstly, say anything about the supernatural claims of religion. The mere fact that the world is not happy and perfect, an endless cascade of milk and honey far beyond the dreams of Winnie the Pooh--what does this unpleasantness have to do with whether or not religion is correct? It doesn't. Life is not perfect. It never has been, and it probably never will be. We are too small, too insignificant on a cosmic, even an earthly, scale. 99% of life is extinct. We will go extinct one day, too, even if we figure out how to escape the planet we are slowly destroying.
Secondly, the above statement about state atheism is true in the sense that it has been responsible for great crimes, but this is primarily because those who enforced it were mad dictators who essentially formed religion-like cults of personality around themselves (Stalin, for instance, was more or less worshipped as a god), dictators who attempted to force communism upon their countries. It is their forced communism, more than their atheism, that is generally responsible for their death tolls. And, moreover, anti-theism, anti-religion--the things the worst of these dictators practiced--is not the same as atheism. One need not persecute the religious, even if the head of state is an unbeliever. This is why the most successful governments are secular, allowing no special privileges for believers or unbelievers. Forcing any belief upon a people, be it a religion, agnosticism, or atheism, is wrong.
So, when you find yourself in a debate about religion next time and you end up talking about morals instead of whether or not there is evidence for the religion's supernatural claims, there is a good chance you've come closer to winning the debate than you might have thought. It's true that we have to create our own systems of ethics, since we do not have a dictator from above telling us what to do; but this allows us to create systems based on centuries of great thought, and, really and truly, how different would many legal systems be, if you remove religious dictums from them?
|Robot Devil from Futurama|
Especially if you have to listen to the Robot Devil from Futurama fiddling away for eternity. Then again, he's a demon on that instrument, a robot Paganini, so eternal damnation might not be so bad, after all....