god is no better foundation for ethics than no-god

or why atheists are no worse than christians.

In his new encyclical the Pope argues that atheism cannot be moral because it has no god upon which to construct an ethics. This is plain wrong, though a well-ingrained assumption among (even the most liberal of) the religious.

Why the argument fails:

(1) the argument posits a god who is the guarantor of the ethic. But that is no more reasonable than just going ahead and positing the ethic and skipping the whole god-part. “Who created God?” remains an ever relevant question.

(2) the argument assumes that you need an indestructible foundation for an ethic to be valid at all. But (a) we all know that christianity et al. have been in a long process of tweaking and plain revamping their own “ultimate moral truths”. They might say their ultimate foundation is unshakable, but we’ve seen it moving all over the place in the last few thousand years. Also (b), what is wrong with an ethic that is mostly true? Isn’t that how most of our knowledge about the world is? We don’t know what the final Grand Unified Theory of physics is (nor will we ever), but that doesn’t stop us from using Newton’s or Einstein’s approximate equations to send satellites up into orbit. Why can’t we settle for an ethic that mostly works and that we can work on?

Why non-religious ethics works:

(1) Ethics has plenty of criteria it can use to work towards its own validity: coherence, naturalness, intuitiveness, practicality etc. As in all other areas of human inquiry all we need to do is gradually apply our different criteria to slowly improve our ethics. (The religious ethicists simply work it the other way around: they start with a supposedly rock-solid and eternal ethics and then use these same criteria to interpret their less-than-clear scriptures and figure out what the best ethics for today is.)

(2) There is actually no need for a grand unifying ethical theory. All we need are local theories that work in their specific areas. We can gradually bring them together, but we certainly needn’t (and can’t) start out with a perfect, finished ethical theory.
(3) Ethics can rely to a great deal upon a study of (human) nature to formulate its “laws”. This doesn’t mean social darwinism. This means that ethics is what helps us all get along and we should be able to figure out how to do that by looking at what makes us tick. Of course, we will hopefully become more civilized as time passes, abandoning the cruder versions of natural ethics (eye-for-eye) and moving to more sophisticated ones. But in the end, no matter how far our ethics have come over the millenia, ethics must always fit who we are, and we only need to open our own eyes to do learn about that.

The God-fearing can certainly base their ethics on their notion of god. But their argument that you must have one (viz. a god) for ethics to work is baloney. It is tantamount to arguing that a gigantic turtle (or an infinite column of them) holds up the world. We simply have to get used to the fact that nothing except “forces” hold it in place (or in movement). The good news is that these “forces” can be studied. We might never get to the bottom of it, but at least we’re not resting all our hopes on a bunch of turtles!

(p.s. i hope this helps to bring together the diverse and perhaps seemingly contradictory arguments i’ve been making in the last few posts and comments. And thanks Neil, Alonzo and others for your comments.)


4 Comments to “god is no better foundation for ethics than no-god”

  1. Do atheists think that there is the possibility of something greater than ourselves?
    When I meditate I experience something that I have come to call the Mystery of Life. Do atheists have room for an experience like that?

  2. well im not a real atheist myself, at best i’m a mystical atheist, so i certainly would agree with you that there is something greater than ourselves. i simply call it the (mystery of the) world because i actually find “life” to be too definite a term: who knows if the world will still call itself “alive” in a few dozen millenia? Who knows if life is the “most important thing” in the universe?

    But to try and answer your question more generally: there is a type of no-nonsense atheist that just plain doesn’t like anything mysterious or “un-scientific”; but there are also the atheists who just don’t believe there is a god out there and who might well accept some form of transcendence as long as it remains immanent, monistic and non-theistic (i.e. impersonal).

  3. “The God-fearing can certainly base their ethics on their notion of god. But their argument that you must have one (viz. a god) for ethics to work is baloney.”

    I agree with this, though it seems that most great leaps in ethical accomplishments (artistic, scientific too… i.e. Michaelangelo, Newton and Einstein) have been inspired by and given the resolve that results from the direct spiritual experience of it’s leaders (Gandhi, ML King etc.)

    Unfortunately, institutionalized religion, as we all know, is also a powerful motivator of evil action. I would suggest this is primarily caused by the lack of mystical experience; it is replaced by exclusionary tribal tendencies.

    “People never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
    – Blaise Pascal

  4. Thank you both. I study Buddhism and meditate within that discipline’s teachings. According to those teachings “life” does have a bigger meaning since even rocks and planets are considered “alive.” That’s how I think of the word life in this context.

    Your answers were excellent and really answered my question.

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