13 December 2005

Atheism and Moral Basis

Amid all the hubbub in recent months over atheism -- the lawsuits brought by notorious and obnoxious atheists, the mistrust of atheists evinced in polls, the relatively small percentage of atheists to be found in America -- I as an atheist certainly am given pause.

There are many reasons for a choice of atheism, and many different versions of atheism. And certainly many misconceptions about it. I'm not going to discuss them all here -- that's for another time -- but here is one particular item that bothers me.

There is one presumption about atheists which is common to both atheists and non-atheists alike. It's the "moral basis" problem. To wit, without a God or punishment in the afterlife or other such supernatural moral agency guiding behavior ... why should an atheist be moral?

Non-atheists (a clumsy term, but "theists" isn't quite right in this case) commonly hold this belief, as I understand it. "Atheists don't believe in God or Hell or the Commandments," (so it goes) "so what is stopping them from being thieves, rapists, and murderers?"

Many atheists also hold this belief, unfortunately. There are many atheists (who I would call "reactionary" atheists due to their anti-religious views) who also believe that there is no moral right or wrong other than their own self-interest. At least they talk that way...

Personally, the "moral basis" has never been a problem for me. As an atheist, I can nonetheless believe in a natural right to life; a natural order of morality; and that certain actions such as murder and abortion are intrinsically wrong, without reference to a God, Heaven or Hell. I can believe, for example, that the Ten Commandments are for the most part a pretty good moral framework, if not something to be followed word-for-word. I can certainly believe from a purely scientific and common-sense point of view that a fetus is a defenseless baby and you shouldn't kill it. I'm not sure how many other atheists, though, are pro-life like I am.


One interesting point in one of the linked articles above which supports my contention that many journalists are either idiots or think the rest of us are. Dig this quote from Editor and Publisher:

Surprisingly, some 61% of those who seldom or never attend church are nevertheless convinced that God exists.

"Surprisingly"? "Nevertheless"? Common sense actually tells me that result is not surprising at all. Of course many people who seldom attend Church believe in God. Most people do. Why is this surprising?