New Atheism Is A Moral Movement

Last night I argued that when fundamentalist religious people, out of an inflated sense of privilege, demand that no one never offend them, that atheists should challenge the moral rightness of the fundamentlists’ specific, hypersensitive, unwarranted feelings of offense. I argued we should do this rather than indiscriminately defend the right to morally offend people or falsely claim that no one ever has the moral right not to be offended. In fact, everyone always has the moral right not to be truly morally offended. They just don’t always have the right to claim offense when they’ve not genuinely been offended. We need to fight for a true interpretation of when it is right and wrong to feel morally offended, rather than imply than no one who feels offended ever has the right to make demands of others that they not offend them. For more on this point, see last night’s post, Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral and/or my longer, more detailed account of these issues, No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism.

Now I want to make a broader point about the importance of atheists conscientiously dealing with moral categories in general, rather than dismissing them all as distasteful moralism—either from an allergic reaction to morality from its unfortunately tight cultural associations with religion on the one hand or from an over-corrective relativism on the other hand. One can and should think morally without being an unrealistic, unpragmatic absolutist and without being authoritarian and superstitious like the worst religious systems encourage. There is a robust philosophical tradition which for at least a century has rigorously explored ethics with hardly any such morally infantile falseness encumbering it.

And New Atheists specifically are a morally motivated group of people. Yes, there is some concern for simple advancement of science. But even accommodationists are interested in that. What characteristically distinguishes the New Atheists is that we refuse the moral compromise with faith-based, authoritarian religions that other atheists are willing to make. We refuse to allow that the only kind of religious beliefs that deserve public criticism are those that infringe on politics in regressive or anti-intellectual ways. We do not want to just let people have their delusions so long as they do not affect us personally, as long as they make people happy. We want to actually argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it. We want to argue that even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone.

This is implicitly an ethical demand. We think that there is a good that people should be exhorted to embrace usually in a way that is indifferent to their proximate pleasures or pains. And we quite often want to argue that ethically were all people to reject faith and superstition and authoritarianism that in the long run both social and individual happiness (and other goods) would increase and that on these grounds it is worth risking incurring on people the short term pain of disillusionment and disorientation that comes with the loss of faith. So both these non-consequentialist and consequentialist attitudes are developed with the good for individual and collective lives in mind.

This is fundamentally an ethical concern. By contrast, it is the live and let live apatheists and the accommodationist atheists who are indifferent to these considerations of what makes the best individual or collective lives and who are only interested in keeping science or politics pure but who will not be so “rude” as to criticize people’s personal beliefs or foreign cultures’ religiously based authoritarian values. We New Atheists go well beyond concern for science to the concern for the good life. And we should not be embarrassed about this or back off of it when confronted and disingenuously water down our attacks with statements that we don’t care what anyone else thinks privately as long as they keep it out of the public sphere. We do care, otherwise we would be accommodationists only combatting religion as minimally as necessary to protect science education and separation of church and state, and not risking antagonizing any further. If you take an interest in what others privately believe, you take an interest in their good. And you are interested in having an ethical influence.

Similarly, we New Atheists make moral charges against religious people’s intellectual vices. We quite often rail against faith as a culpable failure of honesty, as an appalling embrace of prejudice, as an unfair privileging of the beliefs of their tradition, as a potentially harmful closedmindedness which is to blame for any damage it leads to, etc.

We are also morally offended—i.e., morally angry and indignant, over the impositions of religious privilege that closets and shames atheists and other dissenters. We are morally angry about this even when it’s not political but merely a family matter or one between friends.

And often when we New Atheists are politically motivated, we (and some of the accommodationists with us) are fundamentally morally motivated. We are protesting the moral injustice to gays, transgendered people, women, atheists, minorities, immigrants, and other groups hurt by regressive, religiously-propped up policies. It’s the moral offense to them that makes us so angry and so motivated to protest.

We are making ethical arguments when we defend values of autonomy over patriarchy and theocracy, of diversity over majoritarianism, of guilt-free sexual exploration over repression, of consent-based sex over socially acceptable rape, of reproductive rights over biological superstition, of freedom to dissent over authoritarianism, of responsibility to the poor over Social Darwinism, of compassionate medicine-based treatment of addicts over straight-laced judgmentalism, of the rights of criminals over the vindictiveness of the fearful self-righteous mob, of the conscientious attention to the needs of Othered groups over in-group prejudice, etc., etc.

We are impicitly, through and through, motivated by moral consciousness and moral conscientiousness. We reject the lazy cultural relativism that would allow human rights abuses to be carried out in foreign countries as long as they don’t affect us in the abused name of tolerance. We reject easy compromises with lies and authoritarianism for a cheap, cowardly peace with the religious institutions that repress and oppress the minds and lives of their adherents even when they leave everyone else alone.

And, finally, as a morally driven movement, we need to be self-aware about how we convey our moral judgments. We need to rigorously and honestly investigate the theoretical and practical justifications of our moral claims and of morality itself. We need to be morally scrupulous and avoid hypocrisy when doing our judging. We need to be careful not to become fundamentalists or self-righteous. We need to be vigilantly self-critical, lest we become the kinds of moralists that we find so repulsive on the other side. We need to make sure that in our attempts to influence how others think and live related to some of the deepest identity issues in their lives (their religions), that we are not as obnoxious and intrusive as the pushy and manipulative religious proselytizers we find so repulsive.

But it is disingenuous to evade the burden of moral responsibility by claiming we do not care about others’ private morality but only their public policies and, so, this should not be an option for the honest people we aspire to be. We may be advocating a kind of morality that involves pluralism and a much wider moral diversity and latitude in some key areas than religious fundamentalists afford, but we still frequently make ethical arguments that we do not think are morally negotiable. And we need to own up to that, be proud of that, and be self-critically conscientious in that. It is what makes us a real and robust alternative to social politico-theological conservatives. It is what gives us deeper ethical roots and thoroughness to our arguments than the liberals or libertarians typically manage to have, given their relative disinterest in strangers’ private beliefs and practices that have no immediate political bearing.

Your Thoughts?

For thoughts on how to make our case to change people’s beliefs and values in ways that avoid the pitfalls of the worst religious proselytizers, consider What I Think About “Evangelical Atheism”.

If you still have any doubts about all this emphasis on morality and fear it would turn us into moralists comparable to oppressive authoritarian religions, then consider the debate in my post on Immoralism.

  • Steve Schuler

    I dunno, Dude.

    I just made my way through a veritable mosh pit of a comment thread (strictly as an observer, not as a participant) at Pharyngula and I didn’t see much there that would lead me to believe that New Atheists are striving to attain much in the way of moral high ground or develop rational integrity. What was I doing there? Just trying to maintain a circumspect perspective as I continue to explore the many facets of FTB and atheism.

    Gotta tell you though, Dan, your blog continues to be my premier source for quality thinking and writing at FTB. I appreciate your efforts, Amigo.

  • http://consideredexclamations.blogspot.com/ Andrew T

    “And often when we New Atheists are politically motivated, we (and some of the accommodationists with us) are fundamentally morally motivated. We are protesting the moral injustice to gays, transgendered people, women, atheists, minorities, immigrants, and other groups hurt by regressive, religiously-propped up policies. It’s the moral offense to them that makes us so angry and so motivated to protest.”

    I can’t wait until this movement fully embraces this side of things. At the moment, it seems rare that we are politically or socially involved, and in fact currently I’m in a rather large debate against some atheists who think that privilege doesn’t exist and atheists should not be concerned with (this is a direct quote) “the struggles of other marginalized groups.” I honestly don’t understand why they believe this, but somehow we need to find a way to motivate our constituency, perhaps based on the kind of ethical demand you discussed earlier.

  • http://songe.me Alex Songe

    I hate when I find someone so agreeable! I’ve been trying to make the argument that the New Atheists are acting with a refreshing moral force for a while now, but this is way more comprehensive than I ever was. When I argue with people, I feel it is out of duty to them and to myself to know the truth, and that we should be bound by moral duty to confront those we disagree with, engage them honestly, and evaluate what they say.

  • otrame

    Okay, that one goes in my “keeper” file. I agree. For me, at least, this is about the morals of allowing people to suffer because you don’t want to hurt some one’s feelings. We know the truth will set them free and we need to tell them. Sometimes by saying things like “that argument was refuted 100 years ago, got anything else, fuckheead?” and sometimes by leading someone along the reasoning path more gently. “but how can you enjoy Heaven if you know that people no less well behaved than you have been are in Hell? People you know and love, whose only major sin was that they did not believe in Jesus?”

    Even the fact that we choose whose face to get into is a moral decision. Nobody should sit on grandma’s deathbed and try to convince her that she is not going to be with Jesus.

    Anyway, next time a friend asks why I am so vehement, I’ll be sending them a link to this.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      I think in order to at least create morally serious Christians we have to press them on questions like Is Anne Frank in hell? Is Ghandi in hell? Is ____ in hell? Do they deserve to be sent to hell? What does this make God out to be? Do I deserve hell? From there, there’s other points to jump off to, but I don’t even think most Christians have thought.

      Of course, by giving myself and others like me the moral duty to confront people I disagree with, I have to grant the same thing to Christians to farther their worldview. Some people just want to be left alone, and I think (implicitly anyway) don’t value the lives of other people. I just have to be thankful to my catholic friend who questioned my creationism that eventually took down everything.

  • Kevin

    Very good. I’ll only just comment on this:

    We do not want to just let people have their delusions so long as they do not affect us personally, as long as they make people happy.

    I have made a more-qualified version of this statement — but always follow it up with the statement that such a theist does not exist. It’s a strawperson.

    The vast majority of theism is inextricably tied to the negative moral consequences of religiously motivated behavioral control and (frankly) hatred of out-group members. Maybe some Buddhist monk cloistered in a self-sufficient abbey on the top of a mountain somewhere is the exception that proves the rule. But by and large, theism exists to support religion — and religion exists to demand that people behave in specific ways. Many of them contrary to the needs of a healthy society. And some theists (cough-Catholics-cough-rightwing fundamentalists-cough) would impose their specific (im)moral code on non-adherents to their religion.

    “Live and let live” is not a theistic proposition.

  • Beth

    We want to actually argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it. We want to argue that even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone.

    This is the same basic argument that true believers in any ism are apt to make. Those who are sincere in their attempts to evangelize others ALWAYS believe that they are spreading truth and combatting falsehoods despite the fact that what they call ‘truth’ is actually an unfalsefiable claim.

    Even Dawkins admits that certainty isn’t possible. (For some reason made the headlines this week despite his having said so many times before.) Likewise, when pressed, most religious believers will also agree that certainty about the matter is not possible. This is why I see little difference between the intolerance of the gnu athiests and the intolerance of the more fundamentalist and evangelical religious folks. Despite admitting that it’s possible, however unlikely, that they are mistaken in their belief, they continue to charactorize other people’s sincerely held beliefs as lies, falsehoods or delusions.

    By contrast, it is the live and let live apatheists and the accommodationist atheists who are indifferent to these considerations of what makes the best individual or collective lives and who are only interested in keeping science or politics pure but who will not be so “rude” as to criticize people’s personal beliefs or foreign cultures’ religiously based authoritarian values.

    I have to disagree with this. You are assuming a motive of indifference. While that’s a legit assumption for apatheists, it is not a reasonable assumption for the those typically referred to as accomodationists.

    Accomodationists are not necessary indifferent to the personal beliefs of others. Instead, a variety of objections are possible regarding either your goal or the assumptions behind it.

    For example, I feel that for your ethical argument to hold, it requires faith in the proposition that the world would be a better place if everyone believed as you do. I am not convinced of the truth of that proposition. Why do you believe it to be true?

    If that isn’t an assumption of your argument, then on what grounds do you claim that:

    even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      I don’t think certainty is at play here. What is at play is conviction. If I’m wrong, I would like to know about it, and it’s a moral responsibility to make sure that you take others’ criticisms in and evaluate them. You say things like you don’t want people arguing in the public square on how to live the good life, but this is the entire point of argument in the first place. Without people vigorously defending pluralistic points of view, how are we to guarantee a fair hearing? There are very few things for which I can seriously represent opposing sides and feel ambivalent about choosing (one of them is body-based and personality-based personal identity, for instance). The point is that the public square has become too safe for ideas, and that people should be more open to challenge when they bring their ideas to the public square. People still have the right to reserve participation or ignore public debate.

      For example, I feel that for your ethical argument to hold, it requires faith in the proposition that the world would be a better place if everyone believed as you do. I am not convinced of the truth of that proposition. Why do you believe it to be true?

      I don’t hold certainty that the world would be better off if everyone believed as I do, though I have suspicions about it. What is required for this to be ethical is that people need access to conspicuous public debate so that they have the most information to fulfill their moral duty in living the best life they can.

      even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone

      I’d defend this on the grounds that truth is required to respect autonomy. To not tell someone that you think they may be in serious error is to deny them respect as an autonomous moral agent who makes decisions about the life they live with respect to their understanding of the world. Even if one is wrong, one’s moral duty would be to present the criticism and receive correction. One hopes that one is rational enough to find one’s wrongs.

      That said, one also picks ones battles.

    • Beth

      You say things like you don’t want people arguing in the public square on how to live the good life,

      No, I didn’t say that or anything like that. What caused you to conclude that was my opinion?

  • Jon O

    The actions of new atheists should not be understood under pluralism, identity or minority politics, standpoint theory or any other ethical framework from the libertarian left.

    Most atheists don’t adhere to these frameworks for atheism. Some detractors state that this is because most of the adherents are privileged. This is no more relevant to any of lib-left frameworks than well to do, male, straight Jews living in Germany in the 30s.

    Its not an idea formed at a young age or before birth, (It’s not gender, or orientation) and can be changed (Unlike concepts of ethnicity). New atheism seeks to be convincing, because people don’t see atheism or religion as closely tied to identity as these, but as a more conscious ideological choice.

    You will never understand the ‘aggressiveness’ of the (especially younger) new atheists until you understand that they see it more like politics than identity, where ideas are not ‘subjective’ but should be justified and rational.

    And this is why it will expand faster than any of the anemic growth showed by pluralist movements which didn’t already have a large population which found it appealing, or ended up using rational arguments backed up by data. After all, any idea which posits that it can’t, or has difficultly spreading within a population will have trouble spreading in that population simply due to lack of attempts to convince others.

    Atheism should make no such claims, or limit them greatly. It’s really quite a simple idea.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Atheism should make no such claims, or limit them greatly. It’s really quite a simple idea.

      Make no claims of what sort? I’m not following you exactly? Are you saying New Atheism makes no identity claims? If so, that’s very wrong. A large part of its effectiveness is that it has recast rejection of religion as capable of creating an identity and not just a negation.

  • http://replacinggod.blogspot.com/ Fil Salustri

    I tried to communicate roughly the same idea on my own blog (shameless plug: http://replacinggod.blogspot.com/2012/02/message-to-theists.html), though not as well.

    For me, it comes down to truth and well-being of everyone. I’ve found that there’s plenty of theists who are perfectly content to make ethical decisions that are entirely compatible with mine (and I’m anti-theist in principle). If we – atheists and theists – can all agree on a common ethical core that values truth with respect to reality and well-being in this life (rather than in some woo-afterlife), then I’d be good with that.

    I do think that god/religion is a poison, so I would also have a long term goal of convincing theists to change sides. But if there’s a common ethical basis, then that can be done calmly and respectfully.

    Unfortunately, so long as there’s so many religulous fundiots running around, it’s not going to be pretty.