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.

5 thoughts on “Further Comments on Atheism

  1. Okay, we will start with the assumption I am defending rationalism. Rationalism implies

    Why should we exist?

    What is right and wrong?

    Why aren’t all atheists relativists?

    Science issues?

    Basically the problem is you don’t realize that ethics isn’t a science issue. Science tells you what IS, ethics tells you what should be.

    And most atheists do version number 2- they work off of principles and assumptions. Where do get these principles? Well, since ethics is based on what should be, they base said principles on what people, at the stripped down form, really want.

    Happiness, life, value and self worth. It isn’t hard- you just ask people or watch them.

    As for right and wrong, they are, in principle, based of these. Some things ARE completely arbitrary- traffic laws for instance. It doesn’t matter what they say as long as everyone obeys them. They are regulations basically. Other laws change because new knowledge becomes available or people realize a group they were mistreating is also human. Or, most importantly, people become well enough of that they can spare the time and food to act ethically- kids used to starve first.

    As for science issues…

    The current theory is… complicated. However, it doesn’t have a God. Given that matter pops in and out of existence (quantum foam), it is supported by reality- doesn’t make it any less bizarre.

    There are contradictions in the bible because when ever people write something that long, errors seep in. The problem is increased when you have multiple authors. Take a look at Star Trek for an example.

    A miracle requires the laws of physics to be suspended. The are called the laws of physics because they never are suspended. So, if they are violated, they are no longer a law. Hence, no miracle.

    Because the author’s of the bible didn’t know science.

  2. Matt,

    After I post “Where was God in China’s Earthquake or Burma’s Cyclone?” on my blog, there was an atheist quoted something from my blog and then we started conversation.

    What I’ve found hard is that, first of all, he complaint about people often misunderstood the definition of atheism. He reckoned only the definition from the big Oxford dictionary does justice to them. Online Oxford dictionary gave a wrong definition of atheism. So the first problem is: What is atheism? It is hard to continue the conversation without agreeing on the definition.

    Secondly, he claimed there are no principles of atheism. But is rationalism a principle?

    Anyway, if you are interested, you can check out my blog “allanatfarcountry.wordpress.com about the conversation.


  3. Atheism (weak)- lack of belief in a diety
    Atheism (strong)- Belief that no diety exists
    Agnosticism- lack of knowledge; leads to weak atheism or weak theism
    Weak theism- God exists, but I don’t know much more
    Empericalism- Belief only in that which can be measured, experimented, seen to exist
    Materialism- belief that matter and energy is all their is
    Antitheism- belief religion is wrong and harmful
    Rationalism- belief that ALL beliefs must be logically or emperically justified
    Communism- economic system where the government runs the economy
    Marxism- utopian communism based on revolution and destruction of the borguis order

  4. Hi Matt,

    I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say atheists have no position on ethics – I think the problem is that there is often a contradiction between the atheist’s stated world view and their ethical beliefs. It’s not self consistent.

    The other sensible questions are good ones. Briefly:

    1/ First causes. The problem here is when militants like Dawkins exclude God as a potential first cause. Often they belittle the God option using the “turtles all the way down” argument, rather than accept the possibility of a God so powerful as to be self existent and not needing a previous cause (and really, would you want to worship any lesser god?)

    2/ Apparent contradictions are just that: apparent. I’m yet to see anyone give a convincing argument that shows an actual contradiction. And this is also affected by worldview. The atheist sees an apparent contradiction and says “aha, the Bible is false, there is no God”. The Christian sees an apparent contradiction and says “God is true, the Bible is his word; what am I not understanding which makes appear contradictory?”

    3/ I disagree with comments that miracles require a suspension of the laws of nature. I’ve heard an argument that miracles are simply things which have never been observed in the past. I’m not sure it’s that simple, and I’m too tired to look up and see if I’m remembering the quote properly or not.

    4/ Clashes, what clashes? 🙂 Seriously, many of the great scientists of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were Bible believing Christians. They knew that the only reason it was worthwhile pursuing scientific study was because the world was created by a God of order, not of chaos, and that that order would be revealed in creation. Today, a lot of people seem to abdicate and content themselves with the “separate magesteria” philosophy. Most of the clashes are not with experimental scientists (applied physicists, chemists etc) but with what I’ll call “interpretive” scientists – biologists, paeleontologists, etc. The experiemental stuff is exactly that – experimental – it can be repeated over and over again, and (in process if not in practice) easily proven or disproven.

    No, the clashes are over interpretation – two people look at exactly the same rock or butterfly, a Christian worldview leads one person to interpret the data in a particular way. An atheist worldview leads the other person to interpret exactly the same data for a completely different conclusion.

    There’s a lot more I could say, but I’m typing this at midnight local time, so I’m tired, starting to ramble, and if I’m not careful some of my remarks will be blunt and ungracious towards others. Sorry if I’ve been ungracious to anyone with this post already.


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