Saturday, January 21, 2006

On morally outraged atheists

I had a friend once who moved to a small town way in Oklahoma’s Kiamichi Mountains, way back where even the state highways (at the time) were dirt roads. He had a candy-apple red sports car, and about the second day he was there, he went into a little mom-’n’-pop café for a cup of coffee. The waitress took his order and then said, “I guess maybe you don’t know, but L. C. don’t like red cars.”

My friend grinned. “Too bad for L. C., whoever he is; I guess he’s got a problem.”

“No,” answered the waitress. “If L. C. don’t like you, then you got a problem.”

“Why is that?” asked my friend curiously.

“’Cause L. C. is the sherriff, and I’m tellin’ ya, he don’t like red cars.”

My friend was having trouble taking her seriously. “Hon, there ain’t no law against havin’ a red car.”

“Maybe so, but there’s lots of laws big an’ small, and you’re bound to break one of ’em someday, and when you do he’ll bust your sweet butt. You’re gonna roll through a stop sign at a half a mile an hour and he’s gonna fine you a hundred bucks just like you ran it at eighty like a Saturday night teenager. You’ll come through with your Barbara Mandrell playing a bit loud an’ the windows rolled down, and he’ll arrest you for disturbin’ the peace and make you spend a night in jail. Sweetcheeks, L. C. pulled a gun on my cousin once for violatin’ the county leash law. So if I was you, yeah, there ain’t no law against havin’ a red car, but I’d still go trade that baby in for one that L. C. ain’t so likely to notice.”

Now, I tell that story (which, I should say, I made up) because it goes to the heart of one of atheism’s major problems. An atheist is eager to tell you that there ain’t no transcendent moral laws – and then he’ll just as eagerly jump all over your butt when you do something he thinks is “wrong.” But if atheism is true, then an atheist telling you that, say, people ought not to be “racist” (by whatever definition he’s attached to that extremely fluid loaded word) is like Sherriff L. C. sayin’ he don’t like red cars. If the atheist can hurt you (because, e. g., he’s running the government) then maybe you say to yourself, “That’s total b.s.,” but you still lower your head and play along so you won’t get hurt. Otherwise, when the atheist tells you that he finds your “racism” outrageous and it honks him off, you just cheerfully and rationally respond, “Well, homie, I guess it sucks to be you, huh?”

Now you need to understand some things that I am not saying.

1. I am not saying that it is irrational, even by the atheist’s own philosophy, for him to live a moral life. An atheist is perfectly free to say, “I know that there’s not really any intrinsic value in honesty, or in caring about other people, or in loving animals, or in being concerned about the future of the human race. But I also know that I, emotionally, can’t help but dislike myself when I find myself lying or being callous or littering. So the rational thing for me to do is to cater to these arbitrary emotional hangups that I have, because I’ll be happier that way.” There’s nothing at all irrational about that. An atheist can even, rationally speaking, give his life for a moral principle – if he believes that he would be miserable for the rest of his life if he were to save his life by doing something he can’t help but consider unbearably disgraceful. If an atheist believes that nonexistence is better than misery...well, who’s going to disprove that? There’s no prima facie absurdity in that position (though there is, of course, a highly dubious implicit premise that nonexistence is one of his options).

2. I am not saying that atheists and religious folks can’t cooperate to build a just and moral society. I personally happen to believe that human rights are genuinely inalienable rights, precisely because I believe human beings have been endowed, literally by their Creator, with those rights. If an atheist chooses to believe that human beings have a fundamental, inalienable right to believe as they wish on religious matters without persecution by the state – why, so do I, and we can agree on that and move forward even he believes it because he read it on the wall of a bathroom in Grand Central Station or whatever. In fact, even if the atheist doesn’t believe in a fundamental and inalienable right to religious freedom, still, as long as he’s willing to say that for practical purposes we have that right until the Constitution is amended to discard it, then he and I can move forward in peace. Practically nobody lives a genuinely intellectually consistent life, after all; if we are going to demand utter intellectual consistency from other people before we are willing to cooperate with and feel affection and respect for them, then we might as well go ahead and order our hermit’s rags right now and avoid the rush.

Indeed, the genius of the American approach to government is precisely that we do not insist that our common adherence to the basic American principles of right and wrong, must be practiced for the same reasons or even for good reasons. Are you willing to follow the basic rules upon which American civic life is predicated? Then we’re good; and on whatever’s behind those rules we’ll agree to disagree, however stupid we might think each other’s basic philosophies might be. If you’re willing to respect other people’s religious freedom then it doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, or Wiccan – and that’s true even for those of us who think that a Muslim who doesn’t believe in jihad and sharia, is a Muslim who hasn’t read the Koran very carefully. If we couldn’t find common ground and start from there without insisting that we had to believe the same things for the same reasons, then our society would disintegrate. I’m not just a conservative Christian; I’m also a libertarian, and I guarantee you that pluralism in civil society – which demands a willingness to allow wide variance in fundamental beliefs as long as those beliefs get you safely onto the common ground of the basic rights upon which we Americans base our common life – is deeply dear to my heart.

3. I’m certainly not saying you can’t admire an atheist for his moral character. I like honest people, for example, and don’t care much for liars; and if a particular friend’s reasons for being honest don’t really hold water in a philosophical bull session, still, I’ll take, any day, an honest atheist who isn’t a competent philosopher over a smart guy who can quote the entire Bible from memory but who lies to you whenever he finds it convenient to do so. There are things that are much more important than a person’s brains or philosophical consistency, and moral character is one of those things.

But it is important to understand that when an atheist gets mad at other people because they are behaving in a manner of which he does not approve, he cannot reasonably expect them to pay the slightest attention to his anger unless (a) they happen to agree with the particular moral principle in question, or (b) he can hurt them. Why should he make the rules for them?

Now you can throw this same accusation back in the theist’s face, if you wish, but the theist is (potentially) consistent in a way that the atheist simply cannot be. The theist does not believe that he is making the rules; he thinks that God is. Of course, he could be quite wrong about this; but at least there is nothing prima facie irrational in his claiming that “his” rules apply to everybody, precisely because he does not believe that they are “his” rules at all. But the atheist maintains that moral rules are a human creation, in which case why should I kowtow to the rules the atheist has created rather than to whichever rules happen to strike my fancy? – unless, of course, the atheist has a gun and I don’t. But in that case the atheist has not proved his point, except insofar as the argumentum ad baculam proves anything.

By the same token, theistic moral reasoning is consistent with the virtue of humility in a way that atheistic moral reasoning (at least, if it starts sincerely using emotionally loaded words like “ought” and “should”) cannot be. It is entirely possible for a theist to believe that there is a universal standard of good and evil, and yet have doubts as to whether he fully understands that standard. Scientists believe that there are universally valid physical laws and yet know that there are aspects of physics where they don’t yet know where the laws are – and even that some of the things they think they know, like nineteenth-century scientists thought they knew Newtonian physics was accurate, may turn out not to be. There's no reason a theist can't have a similar attitude toward universally valid moral laws.

There are, of course, lots of Christians who go to the Bible in order to proof-text their own prejudices; but there are also many Christians who go to the Bible precisely so that God will have a chance to point out errors in their own beliefs and sins in their own habits. You can't tell which kind you're dealing with just by whether they are "progressive" or "fundamentalist;" it depends on the individual. For example: There are certain liberal Christians such as John Shelby Spong (not all liberal Christians, I emphasize, are Spong-style morons) who say that it’s okay to ignore what St. Paul said because the Bible is hopelessly polluted by the patriarchal and homophobic prejudices of St. Paul’s culture. Well, okay, you can take that view, I suppose. But if the Spong dude then turns around and hurls vitriolic and bitter abuse at anybody in his church who won’t go along with his own desire to make Anglicans worldwide conform scrupulously to the political program of the late twentieth-century politically correct Western far left, then he is being, quite simply, an arrogant ass. Meanwhile a "fundamentalist" Christian, despite the Spongian chants of "homophobe," may refuse to cooperate in the condoning of homosexual practice precisely out of humility – because he believes other people, and specifically the writers of Scripture, are more to be trusted than is he himself, and because he does not believe that his own opinions are of sufficient authority to overthrow the commands of Scripture and two millenia of Church tradition. The fact that others will accuse him of “trying to force his beliefs on other people,” will not make that accusation be valid; for they are not “his beliefs” in the sense in which the moral outrage implicit in the accusation requires them to be.

Now, a liberal Christian is in a stronger position to argue morality than an atheist, because most liberal Christians do believe that there is a God, and a great many liberal Christians believe that there are things that are really right and really wrong, and many a liberal Christian sincerely believes that the Bible properly understood requires us to live a politically correct life rather than, say, the sort of life of which Opus Dei would approve. That is, a liberal Christian may very well approach moral issues with humility, and the disagreement between a liberal Christian and a conservative Christian may be a disagreement between two mutually respectful and humble people who just can’t bring themselves to see the evidence the same way. That Spong’s own liberalism is an exercise in comically unrestrained narcissism is a characteristic of Spong himself, not an intrinsic and irremovable aspect of liberal Christianity; when a liberal and a conservative Christian are arguing, either, or both, or neither may be arguing with humility and charity. It depends entirely on the people involved. The only reason I chose to contrast an arrogant liberal with a humble “fundamentalist” is because I know that many atheists think that Spong is relatively “tolerant” and that “fundamentalists” are arrogant jerks.

But in contrast to a conservative or liberal Christian, or even a Wahhabite Muslim, an atheist has cut off his own legs at the knees, at least when it comes to giving himself a platform from which to rail at the rest of us about how our behavior is “vile” or “evil” or “detestable.” The attempts of atheists to establish that the rest of us “ought” to live according to their notions of good and evil (and believe me, most atheists have some such notions and expect the rest of us to live by them, at least if the invective they toss around in political discussions is anything other than hypocritical manipulation) – those attempts cannot help but end up in an arbitrary value chosen by the atheist and imposed upon others by him, just because (a) he thinks he can impose his opinions upon us and (b) in his mind his opinion counts more than anybody else’s. For example, if you build up a utilitarian moral philosophy based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people...who says I should care about what’s good for all those other people, if it happens to be bad for me? Why should I care about other people?

Again, an atheist carrying on about how theism is “vile” and how atheism is “noble” and “heroic,” or who talks about other subjects with such value-laden epithets...such an atheist does nothing but make himself a comic figure -- at least, assuming the rest of us think he’s sincere. For in the end all he means is, “[whatever he has just called ‘vile’] honks me off and puts me in a bad mood,” and, “I think [whatever he has just called ‘noble’ or whatever] is pretty cool.” Yet his language makes it appear that he thinks there’s more to it than that – his language makes it appear that he expects us to be honked off by the same things he is and to be pleasured by whatever pleasures him, and makes it appear that he will think there’s something wrong with us if we don’t conform to his standard. “Be like me or something’s wrong with you...” in other words, to put it bluntly, that he’s a jackass.

So let the atheist rage about whatever “injustice” happens to push his own particular button. If the rest of us happen to agree that what he’s talking about is a bad thing (e.g., murder, or racism concretely and appropriately defined, or lying, or stealing), then we’ll go along with him – though not because we are overawed by his moral authority. In fact, he can even be persuasive, in certain circumstances. But he can only persuade so long as he is careful to argue from our premises rather than his own; for if he has to justify his fundamental moral principles he will ultimately be able to do no better than to say, “Because it honks me off.” If the rest of us happen to disagree with him, but he is able and willing to hurt us if we don’t comply with his demands...well, might doesn’t make right, but it sometimes makes people do what you want, at least if they don’t think they can do it without your finding out about it; though in such a case you won’t be respected, only feared.

But if the rest of us disagree with you and you can’t hurt us...why, then, when we pin you down on where your principles are coming from and you say, “Because it honks me off,” then the rest of us will with perfect rationality reply, “Guess you got a problem, then, doncha?” And we’ll keep on drivin’ our candy-apple red cars, and wearing our genuine fur coats made from genuine baby seals, or whatever it is that we’re doing that we don’t see anything wrong with doing even though it gives you a moralistic butt-rash.

And why is this a problem with atheism? It’s not a crippling problem with the philosophy as an intellectual construct, because it’s always open to the atheist to say, “Listen, right and wrong is just about who’s got the power to make other people to live their way.” If an atheist is genuinely capable of placidly letting other people do whatever they want to do – eat meat, listen to country music while dippin’ Skoal, kill people who chew their food with their mouths open, compel people to worship in mosques on penalty of beheading, forcibly castrate boys so that their voices won’t change, kidnap other people and sell them into slavery, poison the environment with radioactive waste, practice female circumcision on unwilling girls, stone homosexuals, implement a Final Solution...why, if the atheist is willing to let others do all this, or if when he tries to make people stop and they ask, “Why?” he answers simply, “Because I say so and I have the gun” – why, then, he can live as an atheist in complete intellectual consistency.

But that’s not where most atheists are. The problem with atheism comes when you want other people to behave in ways that don’t honk you off, but you aren’t strong enough to force them to and you are unfortunate enough to live among sensible people who aren’t intimidated by high-minded-sounding crap. Most atheists, being human, can’t help but feel righteous indignation – but their philosophy has reduced righteousness to, essentially, “behavior that suits my own personal arbitrary emotional reactions.” Which means that when they get angry at everybody else for doing “bad” things, most of the rest of us understand that the atheist’s anger is fundamentally an emotional claim that everybody else owes it to the atheist to behave in a way that makes the atheist happy – that is, a claim to be the most important person in the world. And the rest of us...well, we know you aren’t any more important than we are. So if we’re charitable people who know that to be human is to be a fool every now and then, we’ll be amused by you (unless it starts to look like you might actually be able to get enough power to be able to start hurting other people who don’t do what you say, in which case we’ll stop being amused and we’ll set about to adjust your attitude as forcibly as your stubbornness requires); and if we’re the sort of uncharitable person who is annoyed by others’ folly and never notices his own, why then we’ll think you’re a jerk.

To have others either think you’re a fool or else think you’re a that really what you’re after?

(No, it’s not what I’m after, either; but I long since got used to it...)


At 10:04 AM, Blogger Jim r said...


I read through this a couple times. I am reading a level of vitriol which I find surprising coming from you. I have written up a bunch of comments, but before I add them here, I just have to ask, what set this off?

At 4:14 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Hm, badly written post, then. At least, if the vitriol appears directed at the people rather than at the inherent contradictions within their ideas.

Ordinarily I wouldn't have posted something like this without writing it, letting it soak a few days, and rereading it to try to see whether it struck me differently in reading it than it did in writing it; but now that my family is in Houston and I can go home to them every night, I'm not spending nearly as much time polishing blog posts and comments. So I just first-drafted it, which on a controversial point where I'm trying to work out how to express a fundamental philosophical objection, is probably a bad idea, especially since my sense of humor runs heavily to redneck tongue-in-cheek.

To answer your question: what set it off was that very long list of relatively stupid pro-atheism quotes that MikeOMatic posted over at All Things Beautiful. There were two recurrent themes that just kept popping up as I read through that long list. This was one of them, that vocal atheists freely pour moralistic abuse out on the religious, but with no rational basis for the value-judgements implicit in their attacks...and yet they appear to have every expectation that we'll take them seriously instead of just starting to giggle (my own ordinary first reaction). The other is the huge leap of faith that atheists take in assuming that what may well be a severely limited perspective, is actually All There Is -- as though meaning, or even the absence of meaning, can possibly be established when the context of the potential signifier is unknown.

By all means post your comments even if you're flaming me. (Oh, and by the way, considering that I very often am a jerk -- ask the people who live with me -- it doesn't offend me to be told I'm doing it again. Usually when I'm told that it's because it's true.) Then perhaps we'll see if I can rewrite it and put some improvement on it, in tone if not in logical coherence.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Alexandra said...

All Things Beautiful TrackBack It Is About Time We Were Politically Incorrect Part II

At 3:44 AM, Blogger loyal4royal said...

It is not true that atheists cannot be consistent when making moral decisions. As Immanuel Kant has put it, every human being is born with reason and therefore deserves dignity. I know this is true because I myself also am born with reason. I need to know only that, and then I can deduce other moral principles from there. The reason why we can't agree on moral issues is because there are things interfering with our reason; our own benefit, political ideologies, and religions. But we can still try to eliminate those outside factors and make moral decisions relying solely on our reason.

At 3:44 AM, Blogger loyal4royal said...

It is not true that atheists cannot be consistent when making moral decisions. As Immanuel Kant has put it, every human being is born with reason and therefore deserves dignity. I know this is true because I myself also am born with reason. I need to know only that, and then I can deduce other moral principles from there. The reason why we can't agree on moral issues is because there are things interfering with our reason; our own benefit, political ideologies, and religions. But we can still try to eliminate those outside factors and make moral decisions relying solely on our reason.

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