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Monday, April 27, 2009

Atheism And Morality

"a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said."
--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 304

One of the common arguments against atheism is that it offers no ground for morality. Atheism is equated with moral relativism and nihilism, with the idea that nothing is ultimately good or bad, and so there can be no reason to choose one action over another. This, it is said, undermines the very fabric of civilization.

I shall argue that this is not only false, but backwards. If there can be any ground for moral decisions, it certainly is not theism. Theism fails to offer a knowable ground for moral wisdom. (Note: This is not to say that religions have no moral wisdom to offer. If a religious institution has moral wisdom to offer, it does so in spite of and in contradiction with its theistic foundations.)

Theism may here be defined as any belief in a supernatural agent; that is, any belief which regards natural entities and events as subservient to intelligent, non-natural forces. The idea of God--the infinite, omniscient, benevolent creator of the universe--is perhaps the most prevalent, though not the only, theistic concept. As I have argued somewhat recently, this concept is a delusion. Or, rather, we should say that this concept is empty, because it is defined to refer to something which cannot be referred to. Whatever we know about the world cannot be informed by such an entity, because anything we say about such an entity could not be distinguished from a delusion.

And notice here that I do not deny that theistic entities exist. Rather, I deny that there is sense in talking about theistic entities. This is what separates theological noncognitivism from other forms of atheism, such as "teapot agnosticism."

As Wittgenstein said, when talking about the possibility of identifying private sensations with words like "red" and "pain," there is no criterion for identification, and so no sense in which we can know that what we say about these sensations is correct. Of course, Wittgenstein did not deny the reality of sensations. He only denied the linguistic entanglement which seduces people into asserting that words for sensations really have two meanings: one public, which we can all agree on; and one private, which can only be known to the person experiencing the sensations. We can use words to refer to private sensations, but we could not claim to have any indubitable or special knowledge of them, and we could not claim to be referring to them, as opposed to something publicly knowable.

The problem with theism is similar. Knowledge of God (or knowledge of God's will) is said to occur via divine revelation, which is claimed to be an indubitable and inexplicable sort of knowing. It is absolutely private and cannot be corroborated with evidence. It is thus quite like the sensations Wittgenstein was talking about. And, as Wittgenstein noted about private sensations, there is no criterion for "correct" here. There is no way to say that one knows about any such experiences. This explains why such experiences cannot be distinguished from delusions. So to say that one has knowledge of God is to say nothing at all.

Such "knowledge" cannot inform our behavior. It cannot tell us what is right or wrong. It cannot ground our logic or our ethics. In short, it is not knowledge.

One might say that the Bible, for example, was a guide to moral wisdom. But of course a person must interpret the Bible and apply it to unique cases. It is said that one must trust God's guidance beyond the written word. God is supposed to help us interpret and apply His wisdom, and the Bible can be overridden by divine revelation. If God tells you to do something, you are obligated to do it, even if it contradicts what the Bible explicitly proscribes. But there is no way to distinguish between God and a delusion. So there is no way to know if your impulse to ignore the Bible is a product of your own mind or if it has been given to you as a commandment by God. When applied consistently, the theistic conception of divine knowledge contradicts the very possibility of establishing a criterion of moral right, no matter how strongly one's beliefs are held and no matter how appalling or threatening the behavior in question might be.

Where does that leave morality?

It leaves it where it's always been: in the hands of people who must live and work together to maintain stable lives.

Theists argue that atheism somehow undermines their moral foundations, when in fact they never had the foundations they thought they had. Of course religious institutions can have moral wisdom, but then so can any institution. Moral wisdom is grounded in the work it accomplishes, in the value it manifests within a community.

Communities require that people work together to negotiate their interests. What we call moral is that behavior we deem universally applicable within our community as it pertains to our need to negotiate standards of decency. (This is why eating lettuce is neither moral nor immoral, but simply amoral; and why stealing somebody else's lettuce is often considered immoral.)

Moral value is not measured in divine terms. How could it be?

The failure of theism to ground morality is evident. This failure also explains why divine punishment is cited as a motivation for good deeds. One might wish to say the threats are there to help along the people incapable of understanding the finer points of theology. That answer is not convincing, perhaps because it presumes that theology actually has finer points to be understood.