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October 1, 2014 / compassioninpolitics

Can atheists be moral or ethical?

Christians who write responses generally don’t assume atheists lack ethics, but rather usually that atheism and science lack a basis for ethics beyond cultural relativism, naturalism, and law of the jungle.

Usually the argument is that science makes claims about causality. Its woefully inadequate to make any claims about ethics, because lab experiments don’t yield ethical theorems and principles. Therefore, it is a category mistake to try to derive ethics from science.

Many atheists seem to accept notions of moral relativism, which is problematic for ethical claims like the ones you made above. Which is to say…if they took relativism seriously….there’s no reason why they couldn’t also take those claims seriously. The core problem with that is beyond the obvious, is that it lacks a substantive basis for fairness, justice, and anything we take as meaningful and valuable in society.

Further, the science can’t find agency, purpose, or ethics. Initially, science is incabable of finding agency, so it would be problematic for it to find issues like human dignity. (In fact, Singer is pretty anti-human dignity as was Bentham the founder of Utilitarianism given his rejection of natural rights as “nonsense on stilts”). Moreover, biological and methodological reductionism….along with biology, physics, and chemistry simply aren’t suited to provide the principles necessary for ethics, meaning, purpose, or agency.

Given the above…I would think you might see skeptics and atheists having a bit of problem with the idea of intrinsic value or intrinsic values….beyond their utilitarian value–turning ethics into spreadsheats and bean counting rather than doing the right thing or valuing humans irrespective of the dollar amount attached to their life by an insurance agent.

The historical case is pretty interesting as well. The rise of rights is directly related to the rise of Christianity and Christian values. Jurgen Habermas the agnostic/skeptic philosopher correctly emphasizes:

“Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

(Jürgen Habermas – “Time of Transitions”, Polity Press, 2006, pp. 150-151, translation of an interview from 1999).

Some skeptics might reply that religion has done many things that violate human rights.

1) All people are sinners and tempted by false idols like power. Christian principles provides accountability in that instance.
2) Using the language of Christianity or religion to achieve nafarious ends isn’t Christianity, its properly understood as opportunism and the opposite of Christianity. (even human rights language and ideology been abused and warped to include its opposite…and I’m pretty sure every ideology includes this problem).
3) The argument is comparative…its not denying the damage done, but rather looking on balance as the worldviews impact on history.

The nature of how skepticism is acid to all ideology, all beliefs, and all philosophy–means that a consistent application of skepticism would yield no basis for human values and no basis. However, its application at that level is clearly mistake for historical reasons–history has proven the cultures, ideas, and worldviews that work and those that don’t. Freedom with responsibility and checks clearly works. Witness the rise of the West. Alternatively, its opposite fails and fails quite dramatically through death and dehumanization at a near global scale ( evidence/proof:… ).

In short, Christianity provides a better telos and epistemology for ethics and human dignity (which arose historically from the imagio dei) than does either science or traditional modes of atheism. Particularly when you speak to atheism’s more skeptical, naturalistic, and scientistic versions.

So atheists can certainly be moral, but their atheism doesn’t help them form a basis for the protections of idealisms like personhood, dignity, rights, justice. All those are one relativistic decision away from being reduced to “inventions” or “nonsense” on stilts. I don’t know about you….but I don’t really want my Constitutional rights and Bill of Rights to hang in the balance between the relentless and nihilistic acid of reductionism (be it biological, physicalist, or otherwise).

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