Just wanted to follow up on my last post, because I’ve been mulling over the issues raised for the last couple of weeks. First off – thanks, Dave, for the recommendation on the Blanchard book. I was eyeing it off last year and forgot all about it, but I’ll keep it in mind to read at some stage.
Also, thank you, Kushal, for your comments – and for not going into the kind of unhelpful mocking that I too often see on these kinds of discussions.
However, you’ve raised an interesting issue which I wanted to draw attention to, because it’s been floating around in my head the last couple of weeks. The following comments in particular are the ones I’ve been thinking about.
There are probably four quotes that I’m thinking about:
1. “We want to create a code of life that will help us sustain and enhance life.”
2. And a bit further down: “The only obligation one man has to another is make sure never to infringe on anyone’s life, liberty or property.”
3. “This respect for others’ rights is all that a man is obliged to offer to the society.”
4. And, finally: “Of course, there are a lot of questions about ideal conduct in public or in personal lives, but religion is not the place to seek answers. If we simply build up on this foundation we have before us, we’d be just fine.”
The problem I have with these statements is that I fail to see how these statements arrive out of a rationalist/atheist mindset.
Unless I’m missing the point somewhere, the atheist believes there is no God, no afterlife, no life beyond what we can see and experience here. Therefore, all holy books (the Bible, the Koran, etc) are just ancient dogma which religious fanatics (or religiously naive people) try to live by.
So, let’s grant that this is correct. If, then, we have a world with no God – and, more importantly, no book or other absolute standard of truth handed down – then, on what basis does the atheist believe that the point of existence is to sustain and enhance life? For instance, those good folks over at the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement actually believe the complete opposite. They believe that the planet would be better if human life was not sustained and have plans to just phase themselves out.
As far as I can see, atheism may demonstrate that a God is either impossible or extremely unlikely. But all that gives you is a bunch of thinking creatures called humans on a planet called Earth. Atheism just tells you that they’re all alone. But saying that there isn’t a God doesn’t in any way give you a system for determining right and wrong.
I believe that, if there is no God, right and wrong becomes a completely arbitrary concept. We may appoint legislators to make laws for us, under the current system, but a quick glance over the number of legislation changes and new introductions to legislation reveals quite quickly that man-made laws change on a frequent basis. So 10 years ago, it was legal to drive through suburban streets at 60 km/h in Australia. Now it’s illegal to do so, and you have to drive at 50 km/h. Were we secretly doing the wrong thing 10 years ago? No, they just made a new law.
So I’m quite happy for atheists to say, on a pragmatic basis, that they believe society can be governed by an arbitrary set of laws that they make up. However, on a philosophical basis, I am completely unconvinced that atheism gives man any set of principles whatsoever to go towards forming standards of right and wrong.
Whether it be Onfray arguing for utilitarianism or Kushal arguing for the sustaining of life, quite simply, these things do not follow from rationalism. Rationalism simply says that there is no rational evidence that God exists, and therefore He doesn’t. But that simply states that religion, as a source of truth and ethics, is not correct. It doesn’t put forward an alternative system.
So, as far as I’m concerned, atheists have two options as far as ethics are concerned:
1. They can admit that they have no ultimate standard of right and wrong, and that they have a few agreed-upon conventions that they decide to accept on faith in order to have a working ethical system.
2. They can derive from first principles their set of ethics.
I know they’ve never done 2., because there’s always a set of principles underlying the first principles that can’t be proved scientifically (things we shouldn’t do harm to one another or humans should try to sustain life). So there’s always something underlying everybody’s system of ethics that can’t be proved rationally and scientifically that the atheist accepts blindly.
However, if they’re not going to do 2., then I think, to be consistent, they have to agree that they’re doing number 1. If they’re doing number 1, then I think, considering their own ethical system is built around an adherence of faith to some first principles that undergird their ethical conventions, which cannot themselves be proved – they should outright admit that they don’t have an absolute standard for ethics, and give up being commentators about ethics.
You see, Michel Onfray, in his book, spends a good half the book making ethical calls about the monotheistic religions (and Christianity in particular). Christianity is stupid because it only has sex within marriage. Christianity is stupid because it supports capital punishment. Christianity is stupid because it opposed abortion.
But these are all ethical/moral claims. These are issues to do, not with any sort of rationalism, but simply what conventions do people agree to live by. And, as I think I’ve already explained, atheism doesn’t have a set of absolutes itself. So where do they get off complaining about sex within marriage, capital punishment and the pro-life movement?
I think all that atheists who oppose these things are trying to do, is score a few Brownie points with similar-minder readers living in this current age of the Western world.
So, unless I’m missing something in all of this, from now on, I think atheists can stick to asking their little rationalist doubt questions about the facts of Christianity and stay out of ethical matters. Complaining about sexual mores, capital punishment, and other such issues just proves that they don’t like Christianity, but that’s not really an argument.
Now, having said that, I think there are sensible questions by atheists that remain to be answered, such as, can the universe start without a God? Why are there apparent contradictions in the Bible? Could miracles really happen? Why are there clashes between science and the Bible? I’m happy to keep looking into these issues and try to answer these questions, but as far as the issue of ethics goes, I don’t see how atheists have a position at all.