Atheism, morality, and social control (with apologies for the dorky post title)

Atheism, morality, and social control (with apologies for the dorky post title) June 27, 2015

Here’s a post in which I try to assemble some ideas I’ve been thinking about for a while, but which are newly relevant in light of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision.  As I tend to do in such posts, I’m writing without much reference to the literature on the topic, just trying out ideas.  Yeah, amateur hour — but have at it in the comments.

First thought:

There’s a running debate over whether religion is necessary for morality — whether an individual can be sufficiently moral in the absence of (a) the belief that a deity will punish you for transgressing divinely-ordained rules or (b) even without acute fear of punishment, the belief that rules of proper behavior are divinely ordained in the first place.  People who are atheists — not just indifferent to religion but the sort whose facebook wall is full of “shares” from atheist groups or individuals — claim it’s an insult to even suggest that their moral compass might not be in order.

But it occurs to me that we’re not being precise enough if we say something to the effect of “atheists are not moral” — it is (likely) quite appropriate to say that, in general, “atheists have a different set of moral principles than religious people do,” and to explore whether there are common threads to those different principles.  Here are some thoughts:

Atheists, in general, are less interested in abstract, future harms to some group or individual that might result from your actions (or  the collective actions of those who are so behaving) than in tangible, direct harms.

Atheists prioritize individual autonomy and freedom to act as you choose, and see unwarranted restrictions on that autonomy (whether by the government or by means of social disapproval) as a grave sin.

Because of the high value they place on individual autonomy/freedom, and the fact that they see great harm in restricting this, this tends to trump concerns about harm it might do to others.

And atheists take as their prime moral principle the neopagan “Do what you will, so long as it harms none” (or variants thereof; see wikipedia), which lacks that active call to help others which exists in the Christian “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (and I don’t mean to set up a Christian vs. atheist binary but can’t speak authoritatively about the extent to which other religions include that call to help others).


the notion that gay marriage could cause anyone any harm is just not something that can fit in this values system.  The deprivation of individual freedom is so clear that statements like “children need a mother and a father” can’t make any headway against it, let alone concerns about the long-term impact of gay men acquiring children by purchasing donor eggs and the services of a surrogate, or the effect of the commodification of children that we see in stories of angry sperm purchasers complaining about the defective purchase, or arguments about when a man is a “donor” with no responsibilities for a legally-fatherless child or a father who is obliged to pay child support.  The clear tangible benefits of Social Security survivor’s benefits, estate tax exemption, etc., trump worries about what happens next if marriage is defined as a means of providing government benefits and recognition for romantically-linked pairs.

The increasing frequency with which CNN and other “news” sites profile polyamorous couples, swingers, open marriages, etc. :  there’s no readily-visible and immediate harm to such relationships.

Likewise:  assisted suicide gives every appearance of being voluntary, of furthering personal autonomy and freedom, and the harms are abstract and indirect:  the risk that individuals will be pressured to kill themselves due to pressure from family, or out of a perception of lack of support; the risk that socially-acceptable suicide will expand from terminally-ill, dreadfully-suffering individuals to the “conventionally” suicidal; concerns that the “pain-relieving option” of suicide will lead to lack of provision (by the government or insurers) of other options.

Abortion, of course:  the deprivation of personal autonomy on the part of a woman who doesn’t want to be pregnant is tangible, the harm done to the fetus by, well, killing it, is more abstract and literally invisible.

A while back, I looked at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, when they put their December display up in our local park, and they, in fact, cited assisted suicide and abortion as two instances of “moral progress” that they claimed to have been brought about by atheists.

Second thought:

The claim is often that even if individual atheists are moral people, they’re free riders of a sort, having often been brought up in religious homes and in any case being influenced by the social norms of a predominantly religious society.  And it occurs to me that the two societies that came to mind as very non-religious were both societies with a high degree of social control:  Japan (see my summary of a book) and Sweden (no link because the book I recently read, I haven’t gotten around to summarizing yet).  So I hunted around and found a report on religious practice which listed the most secular societies (based on the smallest percentages of people responding “yes” to the question “are you a religious person?”):

Here are the lest religious societies, with the percent of people replying “yes” (other choices were “no, not religious”, “a convicted atheist” or “don’t know/no response”):

China – 14%

Japan – 16%

Czech Republic – 20%

Turkey – 23%

Sweden – 29%

Vietnam – 30%

For comparison:  Ireland is 47%, the US is 60%, Poland 81%, and Ghana, the highest, is 96%.

So, yeah, China, Japan, Sweden – no surprise.  Turkey’s a surprise (and this survey dates from 2012), though in another table, they don’t show up in the list of top atheist countries, so they must have largely been replying that they’re “not religious,” and perhaps there the definition of what it means to be “religious” is so narrowly drawn (headscarf, daily prayers, Sharia supporter, etc.) that more moderate believers feel compelled to reply that they’re not.

But the Czech Republic?  Who knew?  Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t.  I found an article from The Guardian from  2010 and another from the National Catholic Reporter from 2009 that provide some context:  basically Catholicism was so heavily connected with the Austro-Hungarian Empire that when they gained their independence after World War I, they threw off both the Empire and the Institutional Church.  Nationalists envisioned replacing it with a “native” Protestantism but that didn’t “take”, and, unlike in Poland, the communists found fertile ground for state-sponsored atheism during the Warsaw Pact period.

So — well, it would be useful to know more.  Is there a distinctively different set of moral principles in the Czech Republic due to being atheist/nonreligious?  Is the fact that they’re unicultural (so far as I know) a glue that holds them together, or is there a strong degree of social control?  Inquiring minds want to know.


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