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.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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