What is an atheist?

What is an Atheist

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Atheism, Theism & Ethics

[Originally published in Freethought Kampala]

“To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first principles; to the first premises of our knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct. But the former, being matters of fact, may be the subject of a direct appeal to the faculties which judge of fact- namely, our senses, and our internal consciousness. Can an appeal be made to the same faculties on questions of practical ends? Or by what other faculty is cognisance taken of them?”

From: Chapter 4, Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill

ethics

When an atheist is debating with a theist on the issue of morality, he will, at some point, criticize whatever concept of god the theist happens to be defending.

Let’s say this theist is a Christian. As you might expect, questions will be asked about one atrocity or another in the Old Testament, the evil nature of the Christian god, the concept of hell, or maybe the very nature of existence of evil in the world. For reasons such as these the Christian god, the atheist will argue, cannot be the basis for morality. The theist, in response, might try to offer an apologetic defense for those atrocities. He will probably also invoke Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense for the problem of evil to show that the existence of evil is consistent with the Christian god.

Christian apologist might turn the tables round at this point, and  challenge the atheist to account for the standard of morality by which he is judging the Christian god. If this god is evil, by what standard has it been established that is he evil?  And why should that standard be accepted as the default?

The atheist might then appeal to societal consensus, or to some utilitarian approach to determining good and evil and judge the Christian god by that. Of course, morality based on societal consensus or utilitarianism are fraught with serious problems, and if pressed hard enough, counter examples can be brought to bear that can undermine their use as moral standards.

Utilitarianism:

For example, if, as per Utilitarianism, the atheist says good is what enhances wellbeing for the greatest number of individuals while minimizing harm, he then has the task of explaining to the theist what well-being is.

Well-being is a term that is impossible to determine outside the scope of every individual’s subjective personal experiences. For this reason it can differ from person to person in many areas and in many ways, rendering well-being an unreliable standard for deriving an objective, universal ethical principle by which to judge actions of people (or gods for that matter).

Aggregating these subjective views into a consensus still does not make the principle objective or universally applicable – it just makes it a subjective majority opinion.

Moral Axioms:

An axiom is a “self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof as the basis for argument.”

Suppose the atheist instead attempts to derive an objective standard for morality by appealing to a set of moral axioms as a standard by which to measure the morality of an action. Indeed, it is possible to determine that an action is objectively wrong, when measured against a specific moral axiom. But then all the theist has to do at this point to challenge this is to ask why we should accept the moral axiom the atheist is proposing. If the atheist says the axiom should be accepted because it is self evident, the theist just has to say it may not be self evident to all – and several counter examples exist that can be brought up to demonstrate that this is the case.

For example, atheists usually reject the theistic claim that ‘God’ is self-evident, or that belief in ‘God’ is properly basic. But If atheists reject these claims, then on what grounds, without resorting to special pleading, can they make a case for why the axioms they propose as the basis for morality are self-evident while the existence of ‘God’ is not?

The atheist moral realist thus seems stuck.

Theistic Morality:

This is not to say that a theistic account of ethics fares any better. It does not. It still ends up reducing morality to the subjective whims of whichever deity one subscribes to, as shown by Euthyphro’s Dilemma:

Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good?

A Christian might counter this by asserting that the objectivity of morality rests not on the whims of ‘God’, but on his essential nature. But this just moves the problem one step back without resolving it:

    • If God’s essential nature is good, because it is good, it implies that the objective standard for what is good does not rest in God’s essential nature, but in good itself, or some other external standard of ‘good’.

    • If on the other hand, God’s essential nature is good because good is whatever God’s essential nature is, then ‘good’ is subjective rather than objective. This is because if God’s essential nature was such that he considered rape to be a ‘good’, and it was true that objective moral values are grounded in ‘God’, then rape would be objectively morally good.

    • It also does not follow that just because an entity has an essential nature, that concepts derived from it, or dependant upon it, are objective. As a human being, my genetic make-up imbues me with predispositions towards all kinds of feelings, impulses, likes and dislikes – this is my nature. But this does not mean that the moral impulses that arise from my genetically determined predispositions represent intrinsic truths about reality. No. They simply represent my subjective feelings on an issue. Therefore, even if it were true that ‘God’ exists, and has a nature, and that nature was synonymous with ‘goodness’ – any moral values derived from ‘God’ would still be subjective. So even if it could be established that objective moral values do exist, they could not possibly be dependant upon ‘God’.

Some have pointed out that – ‘God’ or no ‘God’ – the notion objective moral values is in fact oxymoronic, or contradictory – because for a thing to be valued (an object – real or abstract), there has to be a thing valuing it (the subject).

Any moral “value”, therefore, would necessarily have to be subjective.

Basing Morality on ‘God’:

Apart from it being subjective, basing universal moral principles (i.e. applicable to all people under all circumstances) on the wishes or dictates of ‘God’ has other devastating problems.

First of all, not everyone believes that ‘God’ exists.

atheistbillboardtwo_thumb2[3]

Also, among those that believe, people have different ideas about what constitutes ‘God’ – to some, theirs is a deity high in the heavens, interested in overseeing the lives of the creatures he created. To others, ‘God’ is simply nature – not a being.

Then there are those who do not accept there is one ‘God’, but that there are many.

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Hindu gods

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Egyptian gods 

Let’s be charitable and even suppose everyone believes in a single god – does this improve the situation? Not really, because whose revelation of this god counts as the authoritative one? The Islamic revelation? The Catholic revelation? The Mormon revelation?

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“one man’s god is another man’s false god”

And lets not forget that each revelation has thousands of different interpretations. So while they may claim to believe in the same god, their interpretation of what they think this god has revealed to them differs from denomination to denomination, sect to sect, and believer to believer. Some of these differences are subtle, others are huge.

So for these and others reasons it therefore is problematic to develop universal moral principles on the basis of what some people think ‘God’ wants. We have centuries of religious war to remind us of the problems associated with such a venture.

Of values, desires, preferences:

Science helps us understand why we tend to have certain desires, and why we tend to find certain things (or behaviour by others) more desirable, or preferable, than others.

While the existence of these desires/preferences might be objective facts about ourselves, the desires and preferences themselves are subjective – often differing from individual to individual, and from culture to culture. As such, all axioms (basic principles) upon which both the theist and atheist ‘ground’ their perspectives about morality will always end up being subjective.

It is for this reason that I am an moral error theorist. I believe that moral claims are nothing more than expressions of the subjective preferences of those that claim them.

Care needed when debating ethics:

Because such difficulties exist, I think it is important that those of us who are atheists wanting to talk about ethics to tread slowly and carefully before making moral pronouncements on a whole range of issues.

Sadly, many of us do not, and so sometimes end up sounding just as dogmatic as the religious believers we criticize, when defending our moral positions. Our arguments for morality often sound like arguments for ‘God’, a point Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism captures very well in his post Many Atheists are Hypocrites about Morality. He writes:

But let’s get back to this question of how the atheist can justify his belief in objective moral facts.

Many atheists seem to think moral realism is obvious, and easy to prove. I disagree.

Consider the claim we moral realists are making. We generally claim there are invisible properties in the world not detectable by our usual tools of science, properties of an entirely different sort than the usual “is” facts of science. These are mysterious “ought” facts, and there is great disagreement about what they are or how we know them.

Now that is a strong claim. An extraordinary claim, we might say. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, right?

So what is the atheist’s extraordinary evidence for this claim? Usually, it’s something like this:

  • “I experience a world of moral facts. I feel very strongly that rape is objectively wrong, and charity is objectively right.”
  • “Almost everybody believes in moral facts. It’s just obvious. Until you can prove there aren’t any, I’m justified in believing what people have always believed: that some things are really right or wrong.”

Do those arguments look familiar? They should. They are the exact same arguments atheists reject when they are given for the existence of God.

Indeed Luke is right.

On the matter of OUGHTS:

In, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), philosopher David Hume wrote:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.

This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

The Is-Ought problem has plagued the mind of many a philosopher through the centuries, with seemingly no credible resolution.

Moral prescriptions (oughts) people tend to come up with are all conditional on desires and preferences – which are, by definition, subjective. For example:

  • If I want to others to survive – I OUGHT TO feed them
  • If I want to have friends – I OUGHT TO treat people they way they’d like to be treated by others.
  • If I want to abide by what ‘God’ says – I OUGHT to follow the Ten Commandments

But what happens if one asks WHY one ought to want others to survive, have friends or abide by what ‘God’ says? Any answer given will be subject to its own WHY as well. The “WHY” regress will continue until a point is reached beyond which the moral realist cannot go – a point for which there exists no rational justification. That point being…

Intuitions. Feelings. Instinct.

…which seems, to me, about as subjective as you can possibly get.

Conclusion:

This viewpoint raises many interesting questions.

For example, if it is true as I allege – that morality is subjective – then can any coherent moral framework for society be constructed? And how would such a framework be binding? How is it that we seem to be getting along?

I know ethics is a highly complex subject, but  I find it to be of great interest. I intend to pursue it further in follow up posts and hope to learn more in the process – especially in exploring the questions that my viewpoint raises.

The Atheist-Skeptic Movement and Minorities

[Originally published in Freethought Kampala]

The atheist-skeptic community currently seems extremely preoccupied with having more racial minorities participate in their events and activities.

I’m not sure if their interest in having more minorities is primarily because they feel people from minority groups might have something useful or interesting to say. To me, it seems more because some people think not having enough racial minorities somehow makes atheists look like racists. I think this is that whole “white-heterosexual-male-privilege” conspiracy theory in full effect – fuelled by a large dose of white guilt.

In the essay “The age of white guilt: and the disappearance of the black individual” – Shelby Steele – award-winning African-American author, columnist, documentary film maker, and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University (specialising in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action), writes:

“What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality, and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative–that they are not racist–to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma.

Institutions especially must be proactive in all this. They must engineer a demonstrable racial innocence to garner enough authority for simple legitimacy in the American democracy. No university today, private or public, could admit students by academic merit alone if that meant no black or brown faces on campus. Such a university would be seen as racist and shunned accordingly. White guilt has made social engineering for black and brown representation a condition of legitimacy…”

So in order to prove to themselves that they are not racists, the largely white-populated atheist-skeptic community seem to want to go out of their way to find minorities to join the fold. But just how do they plan to do this? No one goes into any details. What you do hear a lot of, though, is how the atheist-skeptic community needs to be more ‘welcoming’ of people of other races.

More welcoming? But how?

Do they plan to give out doughnuts to every black person who attends an atheist or skeptic conference, in order to encourage more to show up? Will every black person in attendance be assigned an attractive usher to show him around? Will there be a hip-hop music session between talks to make sure we don’t get bored during all the science presentations? Will they offer us special treatment, like seats on the front row? Will they tip toe around us at conferences and mince their words to ensure they don’t say anything that might have the slightest chance of ‘offending’ us? Will they not criticize us openly and ruthlessly (in the true spirit of skepticism) if we say something erroneous? Just what do they have in mind?

No one goes into any details.

As a black skeptic from Africa, its hard not to feel insulted if this was indeed their primary motivation. Its almost as if they want racial minorities just so they can feel better about themselves by assuaging their self-inflicted guilt.

Personally speaking, if I heard of an atheist-skeptic conference about to take place, and ALL the speakers were white, and ALL the attendees were also white, if I had the means to, I’d still want to attend because I want to hear interesting IDEAS.

Yes, interesting ideas. Not cookies, not ushers, not hip-hop, not special treatment – but interesting ideas. And why might that be? Perhaps its because I have a brain? Probably.

An African-American commenter at Abbie Smith’s blog, ERV, shares my view and drives the point home beautifully. He made this comment on a thread that was discussing Elevatorgate:

[…] even before this flareup got going I noticed bloggers consistently talking about bringing in more minorities and women. Trying to give advise on what the skeptic/atheist community ought to do to fix this problem.

So, as a racial minority, let me tell it to you straight.

The reason you don’t see as many minorities and women at these meetings and lectures isn’t because white, heterosexual men, high on their privilege, are rampant with subconscious racists and sexist mindsets. Heck, atheists in this country tend to be the most liberal people and socially progressive people on the planet. The main reason why we’re not there is because racial minorities and women in the western world statistically tend to be more religious then white men.

So all of you freedom fighter can relax all ready and stop getting bothered on behalf of me. Now, we can have fun trying to figure out why we’re more religious, but I promise you it’s not because the skeptic community is seen as too prejudiced to get involved in.

To be honest I’m kind of insulted that these bloggers think that if they are nicer to me that I’ll have more reason to be a skeptic/atheist. I’m atheist because there is no evidence for god/s; it is entirely an intellectual position on my part, not because I’m looking for a place to be treated like a delicate piece of porcelain. Every other atheist on the planet can be an egocentric jerk for all I care, I still would be an atheist because their still wouldn’t be any evidence for god/s.

In fact I think this whole political litmus test some are trying to make for atheist/skeptics is just plain stupid, and at least for me, a real reason why I might consider not showing up these sort of conferences.

I came to skepticism because I saw demonstrable value in it. If white atheist-skeptics want to feel guilt over anything, let it not be the fact that they are white – but the fact that those they are allowing to speak on their behalf assume that being ‘welcoming’ to us will somehow get us interested in skepticism. I couldn’t think of a more patronizing attitude than that!

Are you a white atheist-skeptic? Please don’t feel sorry for me, just because I am a black African. Do not. You owe me nothing.

Judge me not by the colour of my skin, or my race, but on the ideas I have to offer. And if those ideas are not particularly interesting or worth considering, do not feel obliged to pay attention to them. You owe me nothing. The onus is on me to generate ideas that are sufficiently compelling in order to garner the interest of others.

If going out of your way to be nice to people like me is how you plan on getting people interested in skepticism – you’ll be infiltrated by half-wits who are simply looking for a good time. They’ll water down everything and bring the movement down. You do not want that.

So let’s keep politics and political correctness out of skepticism. Let the facts speak for themselves, because to have a viable ‘movement’ what you want is people who are drawn in by the demonstrable value of applying skepticism in their lives – not people who got interested because you were ‘nice’.

Consider this: what if tomorrow this person meets a ‘nicer’ Christian missionary, Scientologist, or homeopath? If nice-ness is the point of entry then this person will susceptible to the very things skeptics are trying to discourage him/her from. Exploiting people’s emotions to get them interested in something is what religion and other forms of quackery does. As skeptics, what we want to do is stimulate people’s thinking and let them see for themselves how much good comes out of applying skepticism, right? So let’s do that.

If we are unable to effectively communicate the demonstrable value of skepticism to others in the first place, then I have to wonder what the point of having a skeptical movement is.

Rational Ugandan – the blog

My name is James Onen, co-founding member of Freethought Kampala

I created this blog because I want to express certain views I have with regards to atheism, skepticism, freethought, rationality – not from an advocacy view point (as I do on the Freethought Kampala blog), but from the perspective a person observing what has come to be known as the online atheist-skeptic community.

Recent events have indicated to me that atheists do in fact have their fair share of dogmas. As Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism duly observed in his article “Atheism and Dogmatism” on August 1, 2010:

Denying the gods does not allow one to escape rampant human bias. Theism is merely one symptom of our mostly non-rational and irrational primate brains – there are many other symptoms that atheists rarely escape. We, too, are often dogmatic. We, too, abandon reason and evidence to support opinions that just “feel right” to us.

he continued:

Attack an atheist’s dogma – especially about a complicated subject like morality and feminism – and count the number of respondents who show a serious interest in arguments and evidence over emotion and dogma-defending.

Freethought Kampala has a very specific focus, and I am not keen to saddle it with discussions of the internal politics of the online atheist community.

This blog will focus on discussions of what I think are some of the dogmas that plague the minds of many atheists.