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Atheism Hampers the Moral Efforts of Atheists

John on December 15, 2005 at 9:35 am

First of all as atheists often point out, sitting in a comfy chair beneath a steeple does not make one moral. Morality only “counts” when it reveals itself in some tangible moral action. This “real morality” is the kind I want to talk about in this post.

Most atheists seek to be good people. They do so despite the fact that atheism itself is amoral. When challenged on this point, atheists will sometimes refer to the utilitarian views of J.S. Mill, the categorical imperative of Kant, Marxism, or the Secular Humanist Manifesto. All of these represent alternative moral systems which require no reference to God. The existence of such systems in not in question. In fact, I would argue that there are a potentially infinite number of such systems. And as I say, moral atheists can choose whichever one they find most valid. What they can not do is offer a reason to follow any such system based on atheism. Utilitarian ethics may be logical (even Spock likes J.S. Mill, remember) but atheism itself does not require that one have a logical moral system, or any system at all. It turns out that the “universal solvent” of materialism is as corrosive of secular humanist morality as it is of Christianity. The result of this dissolving action is moral atomism, i.e. every man and woman decides for himself what is moral.

I know this for two reasons. First because I used to be an atheist, and second because the brightest atheists in history have told me this is so. Darwin said so (at the end of his life). Huxley made a point of it. Sartre, Nietzche, Camus – they all agree on this point: We can only do what seems best to us as individuals. The corollary is that other people can only do what seems best to them. If two atheists disagree about a moral matter there is a stalemate. Atheism can not resolve it because it views all moral schemes as, at best, useful fictions. This has really important consequences. As Camus demonstrated in The Stranger, even killing for the sake of killing isn’t really wrong, merely unpopular.

I am not suggesting that atheists are murderers. I am suggesting that starting from atheism murder is as morally justifiable a position as any other. But although atheism could justify anything it has historically been most often associated with hedonism (from Epicurus to Hugh Hefner). If one is his own moral arbiter, why not enjoy oneself? A quick look at atheist blogs will turn up many references to Christianity as “self-denying” or some such. The alternative of course is to be self-gratifying. That’s hedonism.

But let’s step away from the extremes of behavior, since I think we all agree that most atheists are neither murderers, pornographers or anything of the sort. In fact, I think most atheists are genuinely moral people who seek the good for themselves and others. And here’s where atheism really hurts atheists. Moral atomism is not compatible with corporate effort. This matters a great deal when it comes to practical morality because corporate action is always far more effective than individual action. This is as true in moral endeavors as in business. To use a familiar business example, two guys in a garage can create the first Macintosh computer, but two guys in a garage can not be Apple.

The most conspicuous type of corporate moral behavior is charity. There are a million and one Christian charities in the world. This is because Christianity provides both a framework and a mandate for moral entrepreneurs to create charity based on needs. By contrast there are relatively few secular humanist charities. Again, I’m not saying atheists don’t give to charity, I know they do. But if one is honest, one has to admit that the most well known “charities” flying the humanist banner tend to focus their efforts on the one thing that binds atheists together, i.e. distaste for religion. Thus, groups like the ACLU and People for the American Way are widely and almost exclusively supported by atheists. The result of moral entrepreneurship can sometimes be annoying and questionable even to other Christians, i.e. the Moral Majority. But this is the nature of entrepreneurial activity: not every start up succeeds and some that do probably don’t deserve to.

Nevertheless, the result of all this corporate moral activity is that Christianity accomplishes quite a bit of good overall. And again, I’m strictly speaking about tangible good, the kind I think we can all agree on, i.e. feeding, clothing, sheltering, teaching literacy, etc. The Salvation Army alone spends a couple billion a year on these activities. Christian charities that feed the hungry spend several times this amount each year in Africa alone. This doesn’t begin to count all the hours of volunteer time at soup kitchens and hospices and orphanages and on and on. Moral entrepreneurship works, as even some atheists will admit.

Rather than dwell on far away places, let’s take a recent example from my own home town as a case study. I live in Huntington Beach, CA. Huntington Beach is the third largest city in Orange County, 11th largest in California and the 93rd largest in the U.S. Our city contains just over 250K people. Now, this is not the Bible belt. In fact, only about 5% of people in my area go to church regularly. After hurricane Katrina, my own church of 650 adults donated nearly $20K to support the Baptist relief fund. The Baptist Relief Fund served 13 million meals to victims of Katrina and other hurricanes in 2005 using portable kitchens designed for this purpose. Another church in town just slightly bigger than ours loaded two tractor trailers full of supplies and had volunteers from their congregation drive them to New Orleans just days after the disaster. The Catholic church in my town outdid us all raising just shy of $100K in two weeks for Katrina relief. Say it’s a myth if you like, but three churches amounting to a couple thousand people gave more than $160K toward relief.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of atheists in town including many who gave money, but they did so as individuals. Atheists weren’t loading trucks, organizing donation drives or volunteering for cross country convoys. Not in my town. Not in any town that I’ve heard about. This lack of organized, grass roots moral response matters. It means that atheists, despite genuinely wanting to “do good”, don’t actually get nearly as much good done.

To sum up, if Darwin, Huxley and their modern day equivalents are correct about the source of our morality then Nietzsche and Camus are right about the consequences. Atheists can pledge their troth to J.S. Mill, Marx, or the Council on Secular Humanism if they so choose. What they can not do is offer a reason founded in materialism why they or anyone else should do so. The resulting moral atomism leads to a distinct lack of grass roots corporate effort in “real” moral matters. While most atheists genuinely seek to do good they do so primarily as individuals. Thus atheism, because it is incompatible with corporate moral effort, significantly limits the good atheists accomplish.

Addendum: Sociologist William Bainbridge has just published a study which I think strongly supports my argument about moral atomism among atheists. Here is a portion of the abstract:

The data show that Atheism is indeed more common among people whose social obligations are weak.

The study can be found here (free registration req’d). [HT: Magic Statistics]

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