Thursday, September 24, 2009

A-Theist Does Not Mean A-Moral

Greta Christina is a blogger who writes about atheism (among many other things, not always suitable for work or family) over at the cleverly eponymously monickered Greta Christina's Blog. She has begun a new project -- The Facebook Atheist Meme of the Day. See here, here, and here.
I'm doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I'm going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme... in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through.
Her project, and many of the reactions to the Facebook posts, started me thinking about one of the anti-atheist memes that still is very widespread. This is the theory that the lack of belief in a god leaves one without any moral grounding. In other words, without gods (or God), anything is permissible. Or maybe even ("Horrors!"), encouraged. This particular meme is #2 in Greta's Eleven Myths and Truths About Atheists --
2: Atheists are immoral: without religion, there's no basis for morality.
Now, for must of us who take life seriously, thinking about morality is an important part of what we do. There's the old "An unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates, I think.) There are the problems of dealing with other people and institutions. There are the issues of raising children to be prepared to go out into the world by themselves. Atheists are no different from anybody else in these concerns.

Greta will probably come up with some nicely worded pithiness that summarizes her position if a sentence or two. Her post from March of 2008, The Not So Logical Conclusion: On the Morality of Atheists and Believers, probably lays out the direction she will go.

So, I set myself the task to come up with an atheist meme about morality. I'm sure it won't be as good as what Greta produces -- she's a much better writer -- but the exercise has been be useful.

I think most people who believe the myth are still very much in thrall of Strict-Big-Daddy-In-The-Sky-Ism.  Without a strong father figure, we're all going to hell in a handbasket. Even this statement reveals the sexism, dominance and fear-mongering that is crucial for this particular brand of Control-Ism to succeed. But this view isn't at all necessary for a coherent and effective morality.

First, we need to now what morality is. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy starts its definition of morality with this:

The term “morality” can be used either

  1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons

In either case, morality is a code of conduct. In other words, it's about behavior, not thoughts. The old saying that you can't legislate morality is wrong. In fact, most of our legislation is about morality -- the ways people behave towards other people. You can't legislate what people think or feel, however, which is what the saying is trying to communicate.

As an atheist coming from at least a cultural Judeo-Christian background (see here), starting with the acknowledged sources of some of our moral sense is useful. The Bible contains two major concepts of exemplary morality -- the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the Golden Rule (ethic of reciprocity) of the New Testament. Although the Ten Commandments are a hodge-podge of prescriptive and proscriptive injunctions, they are mostly a descriptive code of conduct. Just as the Bible itself becomes mostly gentler and kinder as it moves from the chronicles of an Iron Age society to the inspirational message of a more modern world, the basis of morality becomes more universal by the time of the New Testament. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is an ethical normative meme that spans countries, civilizations, and time. The commandments that deal with human interactions can be seen (with some slight rewording) as examples of the Golden Rule.

Similarly, Western culture has absorbed the prescriptive meme of karma -- "What goes around, comes around" and "Instant karma's gonna get you" -- and has begun to unravel the ramifications of the normative meme of Pay-It-Forward-Ism.

In game theory as applied to social interactions, the tit for tat and tit for tat with forgiveness tactics in the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma seem to be the best deterministic strategies. Cooperate until betrayed and then respond in kind (maybe with a little "I forgive you for defecting that last time" thrown in.)

So, where have I gotten? So far, the best I can come up with is:

Atheists know that morality is the human response to issues of social interaction, not delivered from on high. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not just a rule – it’s a Good Idea.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism
free debate