Morally Bad Atheists Don’t Refute Atheism

On Monday I wrote a post in which I argued that since Christians claim that they are recipients of the Holy Spirit or “born again” or “infused with grace”, or something similar depending on the denomination, that they are making an empirical claim by which to test the truth of Christianity. They make pretensions to supernatural improvement of themselves or divine guidance of their decisions. Worse even they make outlandish, unfulfillable promises to prospective converts about their faith’s supernatural powers to transform their lives.

These are supernatural claims. They require rigorous scrutiny. If Christians cannot prove that Christianity makes all or almost all Christians any more supernaturally better morally and intellectually than they could be made by the mundane resources of human psychology, culture, education, material prosperity generally, and creativity in developing practices and institutions for social engineering, then we can consider Christianity’s grandiose claims to divine grace and support decisively falsified.

They’re making an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence to believe in it. And it can be falsified by the ordinary evidence of ordinary Christians who exhibit nothing psychologically, morally, or intellectually supernaturally enhanced about them or the way they live their lives. Plus the existence of rotten Christians and various rotten values of Christians of different ages and places, both in the past and present, are proof positive that no morally perfect being is giving special moral guidance to the Christian church.

While any given Christian or group of Christians may cultivate particular virtues better than other individuals or groups that’s not evidence for supernatural improvement by a morally perfect being. That’s a perfectly natural expected result from individual and group variations. On the other hand, the very fact that there are some characteristic bigotries and other poor values that are more common among Christians than other groups of people is especially embarrassing and refuting of the pretensions of the whole faith to being specially guided by a morally perfect deity.

But when I made these arguments I got the following question: If the moral failures are disproofs of Christianity, are the moral failures of atheists disproofs of atheism too? Am I being hypocritical or allowing atheism off on a double standard?

To which I answer: of course not.

It is a colossal, frequent, thoughtless mistake to expect atheism and Christianity to be highly analogous in every way. That’s not to say that atheism is all wonderfulness and that atheists are above all criticisms as atheists. (I criticize organized atheists readily where it’s warranted, myself.) Rather, it’s to say that you will not get very far understanding organized atheism’s problems (or its strengths) if all you do is treat atheism itself like it’s structurally identical to Christianity or other religions when it isn’t in fact.

For one thing, atheism is not a religion. It is a philosophical position. Its clearest contrast is with theism. Theism is not a religion. Christianity and Islam are both theistic religions but they’re not the same religion. Because just being a theist doesn’t default you automatically into “The Religion of Theism”. There is no one such religion. And neither does simply being an atheist default you automatically into “The Religion of Atheism”. There is no such religion.

Religions are rather intricate things. They don’t just magically occur with people making a philosophical denial. You don’t get suddenly conscripted against your will into The Church Of There Are No Unicorns just because you don’t believe in unicorns. Neither do atheists get mystically enrolled in The Church Of There Is No God. If not believing in a particular being puts you in a religion of denying that being’s existence, then all of us belong to countless religions. Religions that mysteriously have no priests, no dogmas, no organized institutions, no rites, etc., etc.

That’s fairly ridiculous. So. While atheists can join, create, or continue participation in religions (and there are atheistic religious humanists, atheistic Buddhists, atheistic Universalist Unitarians, atheistic Jews, atheistic pagans, atheistic Satanists, atheistic Penn State football fans, etc.), nonetheless, atheism itself is not a religion all by itself. Prominent atheist scientists, philosophers, journalists, literary figures, etc. are not mystically anointed as priests of atheism on account of their influence or celebrity.

Atheistic organizations that are focused on causes like preserving the separation of church and state or making sure the law applies equally to all or advancing science education or doing charity work are not themselves religious organizations.

Only atheist groups that do religious kinds of things like build communities around cultivating and integrating shared rituals, ethics, philosophy, etc. would count as contenders to qualify as “atheistic religions”. And, again, even these do not necessarily have everything whatsoever in common with Christianity. Not all religions are the same. Just being a religion doesn’t mean you automatically have a salvation narrative or that you are fundamentalist or that you believe in Sin or that you do any other specific thing that some other religions do. If you want to see my idea of how an ideal atheistic, humanistic religion might be developed to be different and better and overcome the flaws of the supernaturalistic religions I critique, see my post on my atheistic appreciation of religion.

Next, we should note, that atheism itself is just a metaphysical and/or epistemological proposition. As a metaphysical claim it is the affirmation that in all likelihood there are no gods and we can basically know that. We don’t know that with certainty but we know it as surely as we know other mythical beasts readily disbelieved are not real. This is my position. I know there are no gods.

Some atheists are different than me. They don’t say they know that there are no gods. They think that there is insufficient evidence for gods and that where there is insufficient evidence for a proposition, but not conclusive 100% certainty that it’s wrong, the most rationally appropriate thing to do is to refrain from believing in that proposition. This is a stance based on their view of epistemology (the theory of how we know things) combined with their scientific and philosophical understandings of the state of the evidence for gods. So, they say they “lack belief” in gods. These “agnostic atheists” are atheists because they neither believe in gods or worship them.

There are other strands of atheists too. For example, ignostic atheists don’t believe in God because they think the concept is too ill-formed to be meaningful. How can you believe in something that is unintelligible and whose conditions for truth are completely unclear?

More atheists could be distinguished. The point for now is just to say that atheism is just non-belief in all gods.

Because of that, it’s silly to say that atheists of bad moral character refute atheism in any way. Even were all atheists terrible people that wouldn’t be proof there were gods. It’s not like we can say if there are gods, atheists will be terrible people and if there are not gods, atheists will be wonderful people. There could be gods and yet atheists be wonderful and there could not be gods while atheists are terrible. Atheists who are morally bad don’t refute atheism.

Christianity makes a supernatural claim to divine transformation of the believers and the guidance of a morally perfect agent. These claims are falsifiable. Believers who are ordinary or bad people or even good but not supernaturally good make it so that there is no reason at all to believe a morally perfect being dwells within them. Rotten moral and political philosophy, intellectual ignorance and hostility to knowledge—all of which are in abundance in various eras and places within the Christian Church’s history and present—are all easy disproofs of the laughable hubris of Christians that they have the guidance of a morally perfect being and that we all must heed their God’s teachings lest we be wicked and damned.

Atheism makes no supernatural claims to divine guidance. Obviously. Atheism itself, the proposition that there are no gods or that gods are not rationally to be believed in at present, makes no predictions whatsoever about whether people will be good or bad morally because they are atheists.

You could show me a million heinous people who are atheists and nothing atheism claims is refuted thereby.

And atheism is not refuted by the existence of bad atheist thinkers either. Atheism would only be refuted were there superior reasons to believe in a God or gods.

When an atheist propounds an ethical theory she does not speak for all atheists. Neither when she propounds a scientific theory nor when she propounds a psychological theory or anything else. One’s ethical, philosophical, scientific, and political views are all influenced by the kinds of reasons that matter in ethics, philosophy, science, and politics. They don’t necessarily logically flow from one’s atheism itself except in very specific kinds of cases where not believing in gods is a part of the reasoning equation. But even there, the other relevant factors germane to the area of reasoning you’re engaged with are what’s ultimately decisive in determining one’s actual views.

Similarly the bad behavior of a particular atheist does not have any particular bearing on the necessary values or behavior of other atheists. In fact, even a widespread behavior that might be found common in atheists, good or bad, has more to do with the cultural and moral circumstances in our current society than it does with “atheism itself” as though it existed in some sort of isolation and led all atheists in all cultural contexts throughout history to feel and think the same. It doesn’t.

And since leading atheist thinkers are only specialists in limited domains they don’t wind up by default becoming moral leaders. Just because religious leaders have pretensions to being simultaneously teachers of the true metaphysical beliefs and an ethics, and to being role models for godly living themselves does not mean that any given outspoken atheist who attacks religious leaders’ metaphysical beliefs and ethics therein suddenly becomes himself a teacher of morals and a pretender to moral perfection.

In other words, if as an admired scientist, a lay philosopher, and a modern person with standard 21st Century Western liberal values, Richard Dawkins refutes religious claims about truth and goodness and rebukes religious abuses and crimes against humanity, that doesn’t turn Richard Dawkins into a special ethical teacher for all atheists. No one I have ever come across sees him that way. Neither is he a seer who can unravel metaphysical mysteries for us. Neither is he the creator of a religion furnishing us with new rituals.

Just being a critic who says “based on my special expertise, my general competence, and my moral conscience theistic religions are false and morally questionable” is in no way the same thing as saying, “here are the great answers to all metaphysical riddles and the guide to live life and be a superior human like me”.

One can say “you’re doing it wrong” without having any pretensions to knowing how to do it right. All atheists really agree on is that whatever the right way to believe and live is, supernaturalistic religions are not right about it.

That’s it. So if you don’t like Richard Dawkins, whatever. Atheism doesn’t ride on his moral or intellectual authority. Some atheists don’t like him. Most atheists don’t even know who he is probably. We certainly don’t get encyclicals from him. I know of no one who takes him as a uniquely authoritative moral teacher instead of a science writer. Many atheists are inspired by him and admire him because they find him persuasive and appreciate his influence. On some moral and political issues his arguments persuade people. On others they don’t. This is nothing like some anointed and set apart leader revered as holy. He is a writer who represents a segment of atheists who are vocal and critical of religion in a particular way. That’s it. Probably a majority of atheists are even too deferential to religious privilege even to get on board with us vocal ones who Dawkins usually speaks reasonably well for.

Secular ethics is rarely directly tied to atheism by actual secular philosophers. Secular ethicists, irrespective of their theism or atheism, just examine morality using logic and experience as they would any other issue. While religious claims of divine command as the source of ethics may occasionally arise, most philosophers are concerned with a raft of issues indifferent to whether a God exists. By default they usually assume no God is relevant, just as biologists and physicists and psychologists assume no God is relevant for explanation. The result is not atheistic ethics, atheistic biology, atheistic physics, atheistic psychology, etc.

Or, I should nuance that. The results are not atheistic in the sense that atheism itself does not point directly to any given result in ethics, biology, physics, psychology, etc. You can’t look at any particular bad ethical, biological, physical, or psychological hypothesis and on account of its atheism say, “aha! This is the foolishness atheism leads to!” It’s just one possible way secular thinking can go.

But, I do think that all naturalistic thinking is atheistic and atheism should get credit as such. Why? Because there is something powerful in the successes of ethics, biology, physics, and psychology that all function god-independent and which refutes theistic pretensions to their God being important. If the best ways to generate workable science, philosophy, and ethics is to actually remove all considerations about gods and deal only with the realities before you, then that makes believing in gods an obstacle to knowledge rather than an expedient to acquiring it or even a complement to it.

If God is real and He really intervenes in history to prove that He’s real, it’s awfully strange that the universe appears to actually be a naturalistic order that is regular and predictable and explicable in wholly naturalistic terms event after event. If God was so real, why does science progress by ignoring Him and looking for naturalistic explanations instead?

And the same goes for ethics. Our ethical advances didn’t come from religion. They came from political upheaval and changing life circumstances and the theoretical approaches to make sense of them that people were led to. Our ethics improves with our experience, with our increased compassion, with our exposure to new ideas, with our cultural and technological evolution. There are countless great moral philosophers and political activists and psychologists and academics from across the disciplines and parents and artists and doctors and judges and charity workers and all sorts of other humans who are contributing to our shared human project of constantly reconsidering and trying to improve our values. Among them are religious people. But they’re not specially authoritative on account of their pipeline to a divinity. And most of these humans’ advances in ethics are attributable to their reasoning about their experiences, not to their slavish obedience to the Bible.

The Bible long justified slavery and genocides before other people started rationalizing their opposition to slavery and genocide by reappropriating the Bible. Christianity is not a unique moral guide.

Secular ethics is just a word for any ethics that in principle doesn’t depend on the arbitrary beliefs of any one religious tradition for its rightness. There can be many different approaches to secular ethics. Not all atheists should be assumed to share the same one. We’re not all to blame for the bad ones by default. And few secular ethical systems make atheism a decisive philosophical influence.

Even I grant that my theoretical ethical system could plausibly be adopted by any given theist. And I am an unusually outspoken atheist philosopher and critic of religion. I am also someone whose experience of rejecting Christianity happened to highlight some important things about values that I forefront in my formulation of moral philosophy. (Specifically, I reject the denigration of human nature as cursed with Original Sin and total depravity, and the demonization of power and the body as things to overcome with self-sacrifice and spirituality.) I am self-consciously trying to correct for characteristic moral errors perniciously common in Christian thinking.

But, nonetheless, if my arguments are right they’re right and nothing stops Christians from interpreting their faith more in line with what I say than what the Bible says in any number of ugly places. Just like Christians can adopt true biological or physical or psychological ideas and incorporate them, they can (and have) adopted pagan ideas and humanist ideas (derived from the rediscovery of the pagan tradition in the Renaissance originally). They can even incorporate the ideas of atheists if they’re truer and better than what they were thinking before. But just please stop trying to say Jesus really deserves the credit for ideas he never spoke about or attitudes that run exactly contrary to things he did express in the Bible and which influenced his church for millennia.

Finally, I do think that atheists should aspire to discussing ethics together as atheists. While I don’t think that there is one specific ethics that atheism itself leads straight to, I think that atheism should be part and parcel with being a naturalist. That’s because I think naturalism is true. So, I think everyone should be a naturalist. And I think what it means to say “atheists in particular should be naturalists” is something like this: “If you are follow the same chains of reasoning that got you to atheism, they should also lead you to naturalism if you follow them out, so try that!”

I also think that while atheism does not lead to any specific conclusions in biology, physics, and psychology, I do think that ignoring gods in science is a de facto atheism. And I think it’s abundantly clear that it’s precisely by ignoring gods that those and all other disciplines of learning flourish. Because they hypothesize a regular natural order (one never mucked with by gods) and that hypothesis is vindicated countless times over. Scientific progress itself is all one giant testimony to the validity of that hypothesis. Nonetheless, what atheists should think about biology, physics, or psychology is what is biologically true, physically true, or psychologically true. These facts will all be harmonizable with atheism but not directly indicated by atheism itself all by itself. Methodological atheism just clears the way to discover these truths. Metaphysical or epistemological atheism takes away all undue qualms about believing these truths.

Well, I think it’s fairly similar with ethics. I think that there are basic truths about ethics. I think one of those truths is that what is determining what is morally best in a given time and place means being situationally sensitive to all the morally relevant factors. That means that following absolutist rules that take no account of morally relevant differences in different circumstances is wrong. So there can be some degree of moral variation that is empirically determined by situational factors.

Nonetheless, there can be basic principles about what it means for something to be good, what human good in general is, how to allow for plurality of good ways of life fitted to human variation, how to determine fair principles for cooperation between people, and on and on.

These truths are, I would argue, naturalistic truths. I think they’re rational. I think that whatever the best formulation of them is, everyone should probably agree to them just as they should agree to the best biology, the best physics, and the best psychology. I don’t think they’re exclusively atheistic, but I do think probably all atheists should accept them because they are both true and good to believe.

Since I think atheists should be naturalists, for the same reasons that they are atheists, they should lack the supernaturalistic obstacles to accepting naturalistic truths about ethics. Therefore, if I think the naturalistic truths about ethics are rationally demonstrable, I think all atheists should not only accept them and live by them but that atheists are theoretically better placed to recognize them. This is because they don’t have the extra obstacles that supernaturalism gives believers.

So, I want to appeal to my fellow atheists as fellow naturalists to consider my arguments for ethics based on our common ground. While I grant that just being an atheist won’t make them magically agree with me, I can argue that from our common ground, we should reason together and see if we can create consensus as we have in things like biology. When it comes to biology, nearly all atheists accept the best reasoning about biology and accept the truth of evolution. They accept the best biology more than theists do because without unfounded supernaturalistic theistic hang ups nothing stops them. I think similarly, the most rational, naturalistic ethics should be widely accepted by atheists and would be accepted more readily by atheists than by supernaturalistic theists.

Unfortunately, in fact, atheists have other obstacles to thinking rationally about meta-ethics (namely an over-correcting positivism that drifts towards nihilism, reductionism, and other forms of hostility to ontologically acknowledging the reality of anything but subatomic particles).

But even if so many atheists are so wrong about morality’s most abstract and theoretical ethical foundations, and even if atheists were not moral people on account of this (fortunately, most atheists are fine people irrespective of whether they have a good theory of moral foundations), it wouldn’t change the fact that the best atheistic ethics is the one that is truest to the world and best solves the problems ethics is meant to solve. The best ethics is the one that leads to the most flourishing and fair people. Whatever that is is the ethics we should all be aiming at. An atheist who fails to either theorize that well or live it well does not, through his failure, refute atheism any more than a biologist with a bad biological idea refutes god-indifferent biology.

Atheism could still be true even if atheists are bad at ethical theory or ethical practice. The ideal atheistic ethics would be the ideal ethics itself. That’s it. That should be everyone’s ideal ethics. If an atheist fails to attain to the ideal ethics, that’s not cause to abandon atheism but only cause to abandon whatever particular bad ethical ideas or personal behaviors that were flawed. It’s cause to get a better ethical theory.

Gods will never spring to life just because atheists are unethical. Atheists could take a million years to get ethics straightened out theoretically or practically and still there’d be no gods. There’d just be an ethical and intellectual injunction to keep working at doing better at ethics, and still the hope that we could.

And, in fact, god-ignoring ethical theory and god-ignoring ethical practice really do very well already. Even many theists think about ethics and act ethically in ways that have no need for gods. They’re basically secular people. Shedding the god training wheels will not be a problem. And for many theists religious dogmatism is the greatest and most easily discernible obstacle to moral improvement in thought and deed.

And while some atheists are simply bad people and some devise bad ideologies that make them even worse, the general secular drift of thinking has gone to the better. Most people, theist and atheist alike, in the modern West are mostly secular. And the self-consciously atheistic among us are just matching our views that it is wrong to believe in gods to our many shared cultural values that already have no need for gods to either explain, justify, or motivate them–even in most of the nominally religious.

Your Thoughts?

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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