Monday, July 26, 2010

The Ethics of Atheists and Skeptics

A recent study has shown that almost 40% of Americans consider atheists to be the worst part of their society. This perception hangs upon several convictions: 1) atheists have no morals; 2) atheists are materialistic; 3) atheists are elitists, and 4) atheists represent the worst of modernity.

To the first, that atheists have no morals: in the absence of divine authority, atheists are required to revisit moral questions in naturalistic terms. This effort has been rewarded on several fronts. First, as the natural order represents no divinely ordained moral order, you cannot get an ought from an is--that is, the status quo is not morally sufficient simply because it exists. There is always room for improvement. This insight is from Hume, a refutation of natural law, though often pressed into dubious service particularly by the religious. Furthermore, absent the interests of a meddling deity, morality is a human concern, subject to human needs and desires. There is no excuse for subjecting the populace to odious measures for the benefit of a mysterious authority, who is in fact the sock-puppet of a theocratic elite. Finally, in the absence of divine omniscience, we are required to establish our own knowledge by submitting ourselves, not to divine authority, but to the authority of evidence. Ours is a harsher discipline, harder won and less forgiving. Believers choose the God who agrees with them, but we do not have the luxury of choosing our evidence. It is what it is, and we must adapt to it. In selecting a deity who is never their opposition, believers are effectively solipsists, alone and unchallenged in their beliefs, which they choose with their God.

Why be ethical? As Aristotle stated in the opening of the Ethics, man is a social animal. We live, and indeed only survive, in the company of others. I am perpetually amused by survivalists who expect to thrive on their own, forgetting the thousands of ways that they are dependant upon others. Let us consider the dynamics of the social contract. A simple example then: say that I build boats, and another is a fisherman. This is an example of specialization, but with specialization arises another problem: informational disparity. That is, those who do not share my specialization know little or nothing about my trade. Now suppose it takes me four days to build a fisherman's boat, plus one day's labour worth of materials. In five days, the fisherman might catch enough fish to feed me and my family for a month--a quantity that I, knowing nothing about how to fish, might take twenty days to catch, while the fisherman might take twenty days to build a boat of inferior quality. So I charge the fisherman ten days worth of catch for the boat, amortized over several months--the boat, after all, permits him to pursue his trade and is better than what he might make. I show a 100% profit, as does he. This is the optimal arrangement, quite beneficial to both of us. But suppose I exploit informational disparity, and claim that my efforts take twenty days, and try to charge him for that. Now he shows no profit, while I gain 400%. If he discovers this (and he will), he will refuse to do business with me, and both of us will lose the advantages of specialization, reverting to primitive self-sufficiency at enormous cost to us both. Competition is generally regarded as the solution to this, but guilds and cartels prevent competition. Yet if the exploitation of informational disparity is discovered, even conspiracy won't solve the problem.

Here trust and honesty enter the picture. Honesty inspires trust, and with it, the advantages of specialization. It appears that homo sapiens may have defeated Neanderthals on precisely this issue. Homo sapiens traded over long distances, while Neanderthals did not--is it such a stretch to consider that Neanderthals may have failed because they did not master the social competence required to achieve the solution to specialization? Trust would certainly have been required to form long range trading. Without it, Neanderthals would have been on their own, isolated in rather inclement weather and against superior competitors. The cause of Neanderthal extinction might have not been physical (they were the stronger of the races) but cultural--they failed to learn basic ethics in time. However the truth of that matter may be, there can be no doubt that the most basic of moral codes is essential to any form of economics, and hence to profit, leisure, progress, and culture for its own sake. The alternative is the most primitive barbarism imaginable, a war of all against all, without even the respite of clan solidarity.

Upon this most elementary of foundations we have built, extending our concepts of justice, freedom, and truth. Religions may have been expressions of these sentiments, but they were not originators, merely repositories. Those that best encapsulated our moral intuitions survived and evolved. But while many argue for the essential truth of Christianity due to its persistence through the Enlightenment, how many argue for the truth of Greek religion, even though the philosophy of Greece moved us beyond the dark ages and into the Renaissance? The reason is that we know that Greek religion was not the source of Greek philosophy. Can we not now agree that our own religions are merely expressions for our moral yearnings, and that these same ideas would have found other vehicles of transmission without religion? Furthermore, can we now recognize that in the moral advances of the modern era, religion has always played a rearguard role, fending off genuine moral advances to the best of its ability?

On the second count, that atheists are materialistic, we are dealing with a philosophical mistake. Atheists are philosophical and methodological naturalists--we do not believe in the supernatural. But materialism has two meanings: philosophical materialism, and economic materialism, and atheists are only philosophical materialists. The avowed enemy of moral philosophy has always been economic materialism--greed, and all the injustices that result from it. Atheists are no more prone to this than any other selection of society. Indeed, the only atheistic group that espouses economic materialism explicitly are the Objectivists, and this is the one cult of atheists that the religious seem eager to embrace--witness the travesty of Conservapedia's attempt to recast the New Testament in free market terms. In fact, atheists are more likely to condemn or condone economic materialism in accordance to its utility towards charity and social justice. It is a sad fact that the majority of religious believers today have no problem with greed. They are the true materialists.

In fact, economic materialism may have less to do with physical materialism than it does with positional goods--envy, rather than any real material standard. It is essentially ephemeral, a social and emotional construct rather than anything to do with actual physical need. If everyone is equally poor or rich, there is no need for conspicuous consumption, no need to keep up with the Joneses. Philosophical materialism is about reality, but the problem is not with reality, but with perception. Religion might have some competence in dealing with this, but in the age of the Prosperity Gospel, preached by the likes of the superbly named Creflo Dollar, there will be none of that. Materialism of the economic variety runs through the religion of today like a river of molten gold.

On the charge of elitism, it is inescapably true that religion is the most elitist enterprise ever devised. This leads back to the problem of idolatry--the believer concedes absolute authority to scripture and to the authors and interpreters of that scripture. These are the elites of the religious domain, and they are held in far higher regard, and subject to far fewer challenges, than any elite in the secular world. This is not only indefensible by modern democratic principles, but by the very standards of scripture itself. Idolatry is not just the worship of a carved or painted image, but of any image, whether it be constructed of stone, clay, paint, words, or ideas. It can be a book or a person just as easily as a golden calf. Furthermore, the secular elite do not demand blind obedience, only that their audience consider, in calm rational contemplation, the evidence. Again, the secular submit themselves to the discipline of evidence, while the religious submit themselves only to the authority of their chosen elite. And we are the elitists?

Related to this is the question of who are the true elite--not just talking heads in the popular media. In the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions, the elite were the prophets. But the prophets looked forward, and told their people what was coming. Today, believers look back, and as they are forced as all of us to move forward through time, they walk backwards, ignorant of what they might walk into. They are blind, obsessed with the minutiae of scribblings which have long since expired in relevance. The prophets have left the congregation. Is it any wonder, then, that the faithful hang so desperately upon mythical death bed confessions of luminaries: Charles Darwin, Antony Flew, and other atheist intellectuals? As Martin Gardner, a lifelong believer, admitted, the atheists have the best arguments. Rebecca Goldstein's book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, lays out all of the best arguments for theistic belief--and then promptly demolishes them all. None of them are very good. As Christopher Hitchens himself admits, to refute an argument, you must face it in its strongest form, but which of the notorious four horsemen is really ignorant of theology? Hitchens, with an encyclopedic knowledge of literature. history, philosophy--and judging from his writings--theology as well? Harris, originally a Jew, who travelled with the Dalai Llama as a bodyguard? Dawkins, who, as an Oxford don, no doubt spent hours in a discussion with Oxford theologians intent on teaching him the error of his ways? Or Dennett, a distinguished professor of philosophy, of which theology is considered a branch?

The problem with theology is that it takes as its opening premise the existence of God, and none of the arguments for this withstand challenge, so the prophets of our age ignore it and move on to more promising pursuits. The opinions of a Darwin, or a Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, or Harris, matter--these are amongst the prophets of the modern world. Alistair McGrath, or any of their other detractors (or fleas, as Dawkins calls them), gain prominence only by reflected lustre. How many would ever have heard of McGrath were it not for Dawkins? No wonder he constantly refrains, "Well, I welcome the debate." I've said before that any sufficiently advanced theology is indistinguishable from atheism. But I would now go further to say that the final product of theology is atheism. For if any idea of God is idolatry, if the Holy of Holies is empty, if God is truly beyond comprehension, as an entity beyond space and time would be beyond all categories of mortal thought--don't be so arrogant or sentimental as to give It a personal pronoun, He or She, but treat It as alien as It would assuredly be, if It exists--then we know nothing of the matter. And there we stop. To say that anything is possible is to say that nothing is known, for knowledge truncates, it elides the possible to the actual, leaving the once possible but now disproven in the ditches as road kill. Knowledge converges, theology proliferates. Nothing comes of nothing. Atheism tells you to leave the temple, but apophatic theology burns the temple down. There is no going back. All roads, secular as well as theological, lead to atheism. Every religion is sitting on a bomb. They just choose not to look.

Finally, concerning modernity. If you have followed this blog, you know the essence of the scientific method: seek and isolate the evidence, make it repeatable for everyone, and submit results to peer review to root out the distortions of opinion. This is also the root of our legal and political systems--trial by jury, and democracy. It might be more appropriate to call the scientific method the modern method. Indeed, modernity may be summarized as follows; it is the method used to achieve the solutions required for large populations and high population density, and the sum of those solutions thus far. When one takes into account the achievements of medicine, agriculture, public works like sanitation, public transport, and the like, and all of the benefits of modern technology, it is hard to imagine how we could have survived thus far. I have read, though I cannot remember where, that if everyone in North America lived like the early natives, the continent would be one huge toxic desert. The remnants of Native American cities might bear witness to this claim--apparently the only thing left of them is their garbage dumps, which are extensive and largely untouched by decay, while the cities themselves had long since crumbled before white settlers could reach them.

In the 19th century, it was said that if you were tired of London, you were tired of life. I would make a paraphrase of that regarding modernity, and furthermore ask, if you are tired of modernity, precisely whose life are you tired of? For the cost of losing modernity would be at least half and probably ninety percent of humanity. And if you want to be rid of the worst of modernity, what would you be rid of, for surely, you are asking for the restriction of some freedom or other. What will it be? Freedom of inquiry? Freedom of thought? Freedom of expression? For together, all of these will lead to atheism in some segment of the population. Demographic populists would like to say that since religious believers outbreed atheists, they will take over, and where will future atheists come from? The same places they come from now: religious schools of all kinds. We will take their best and brightest, as we always have. They can keep the rest. As I have already said, every religion is sitting on a bomb. But to see the bomb is to become an atheist. The teachers will never see it. They can never even admit that it exists.