The “New Atheism” 9: The Need for Absolute Ground in Ethics

The “New Atheism” 9: The Need for Absolute Ground in Ethics

Ian Kluge

The New Atheists reject the necessity of an enforcing authority for morals. Dennett, as we have seen, thinks we can rely on individuals making their own choices,69 and Harris thinks we can rely on our moral intuitions (more below) as well as Kant’s other formulation of the categorical imperative i.e. that we must treat others as ends-in-themselves and never as merely a means to another end.70 Hitchens, it is fair to say, speaks for these authors when he writes, “there is no requirement for any enforcing or super-natural authority.”71

There are two problems with this position. First, while it may (or may not) be an ideal to strive for, the practical problem remains that without consequences—without reward and punishment—any ethical system becomes a dead letter, a mere set of suggestions that some will follow and others will not. That is why the Bahá’í Writings state “That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world.”72 Bahá’u’lláh also says, “the canopy of world order is upraised upon the two pillars of reward and punishment.”73 There must be consequences to action in order to encourage obedience.

The second problem is that mere human authority, be it of reason or government lacks the authority to make people accept moral precepts; they lack the inherent authority of a God Who is the author of all that exists. They lack the guarantee of correctness, the certainty, the objective viewpoint and foundation that only God can provide in guiding our actions. Yet this objective foundation is exactly what people need—as the new atheists themselves acknowledge. This is precisely why Kant thought God was necessary as a regulative idea or principle in morals.

As an objective ground for ethics, the new atheists propose either an innate moral sense that exists in all human beings or, in the case of Dawkins and Harris, in biology, i.e. genetics. These provide an absolute ground or absolute reference point needed to make moral choices more than the mere expression of personal preferences. Hitchens tells us that “conscience is innate””74 and that “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”75 Harris also asserts the existence of an innate moral sense:

Any one who does not harbour some rudimentary sense that cruelty is wrong is unlikely to learn that it is by reading . . .  The fact that our ethical intuitions have their roots in biology reveals that our efforts to ground ethics in religious conceptions of “moral duty” are misguided. . . . We simply do not need religious ideas to motivate us to live ethical lives.76

Dennett’s willingness to trust everyone’s informed choices also implies that we all possess an inner moral standard of reasonableness to which we will adhere. Dawkins tries to ground the innate moral sense in our genetic make-up.77

From the view-point of the Bahá’í Writings, this position is not so much incorrect as incomplete, and, therefore, leads to an untenable conclusion. Humankind has a divine or spiritual aspect,78 that might be compared to the innate moral sense posited by the new atheists. However, the Writings also note that humankind has an animal nature in conflict with our spiritual nature, and may overcome it by force or self-deception. The new atheists have not taken this animal nature into account  in the unfolding of our moral lives and, therefore, have over-simplified the issue of innate moral intuitions. As Abdu’l-Bahá says,

The promptings of the heart are sometimes satanic. How are we to differentiate them? How are we to tell whether a given statement is an inspiration and prompting of the heart through the merciful assistance or through the satanic agency?79

Because this question cannot be answered immanently—i.e. from the standpoint of reason or intuition alone—we require an external guide or objective benchmark by which to evaluate our ethical promptings and decisions. This is precisely the role filled by God and the Manifestation of God (i.e. an Avatar or Prophet such as Krishna, Christ or Bahá’u’lláh). “He [man] has the animal side as well as the angelic side, and the aim of an educator is to so train human souls that their angelic aspect may overcome their animal side.”80 However, if we reject God as the ground of our morality, then all moral systems inevitably fall into relativism and conflict as various moral conceptions compete. This is not conducive to the peaceful world both the new atheists and Bahá’í s want to establish.

In other words, the Bahá’í Writings lead us to believe that there is an innate moral sense as part of our spiritual nature but that this moral sense is only potential until it is activated by education from parents, teachers but above all, by the Manifestations of God. The view that this innate moral sense may have biological roots is not a problem from a Bahá’í perspective, indeed, is to be expected given that man is an embodied creature. Thus, Bahá’ís may agree that science can study the biological basis of ethics, without at the same time succumbing to the reductionist view that all ethics can be reduced to biology.

Next time: Faith versus Reason
Footnotes: 69 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 327.; 70 Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 186; this is another formulation of the categorical imperative in Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. ,; 71 Christopher Hitchens , God Is Not Great, p. 266;72 Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p.27; 73 Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 126; 74 Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, p. 256; 75 Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, p. 266; 76 Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 172; 77 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Chapter Six; 78 Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 118; 79 Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 254; 80 Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 235.

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5 thoughts on “The “New Atheism” 9: The Need for Absolute Ground in Ethics

  1. I’m with Dawkins and Harris. The idea that ‘god’ is required for ethics or morality is completely absurd. Most people have an innate sense of ethics and morality, but many do not. You are correct that much of this sense of right and wrong is behavioral and is tought by parents, but many people come to the conclusion, on their own, that in order for us to live in a harmonious society, we need to have conform to a certain level of ethical behavior. While it is true that religions can be used to control people to behave in a certain way, it is primarily through fear and intimidation – which is effective, but only if people are convinced that their normal behavior is “bad”. When people realize that their normal behavior is “good” then they don’t need god or religion and people in general will live together harmoniously. In order to keep their power over people, religions then find anything that people enjoy doing and tell them it’s bad (as in “god will be mad at you if you have a glass of wine with dinner”).

    Recently, the man that kidnapped and repeatedly raped Elizibeth Smart said “god told me to do it” when questioned by prosecutors. Is that the ethical behavior that religions expect? Ok, the offender obviously has severe mental issues, but there is a pattern in human evolution that suggests that belief in god in itself is a mild form of mental illness.

  2. Dawkins, Harris and atheists in general can’t have it both ways: you can’t say, on the one hand, that the vast majority of humans have been epistemologically, behaviorally and morally duped by religion throughout history and even into the present, and then, on the other hand, say that we can rely on an “innate sense of ethics and morality” as the foundation of our new ‘atheist morality’ as a trustworthy guide to right and wrong. In portraying religion in such an absolute, unnuanced way as unmitigated evil, atheism inevitably undermines the concept that the human mind is fit and adequate to set moral standards on its own. If human thought-processes have been so devastatingly wrong before, why should we now trust our thought-processes now? Maybe the new atheism is only the herald of a new darkness. Thus, given our history with religion, our alleged “innate sense of ethics and morality” is not at all reliable at all having failed us so deeply and so long before. The fact that atheists have always been, historically speaking, a tiny minority even among major philosophers, shows that this “innate sense of ethics” – if it even exists – is not powerful enough to play a role as a foundation for ethics for all of humanity. That is why Kant, who denied all proofs of God’s existence, re-introduces God in his “postulatory theism.”

    When atheists refer to the morals that people have taught their children etc. they forget their own ethical parasitism, i.e. they have simply absorbed through social custom and law the ethical principles that religion has long established. None of these people grew up in a complete religious vacuum. They are simply piggy-backing on religiously established morals – and claiming to have thought these out for themselves. I say ‘claim’ because I have yet to read a new atheist text which a writer develops a moral argument that is new, i.e. never seen before in religion and/or philosophy. They are not as original as they think. The only atheists who developed a genuinely new ethical position were Nietzsche and Marx. Nietzsche’s views were so vaguely expressed (more smoke and steam than substance) that both Nazis and anti-Nazis were able to appropriate him and the views of Marx led to the establishment of the bloodiest regimes in history, far outstripping the violence perpetrated by religion or even the Nazis. And remember: Marxism is programmatically atheist to the point where “Scientific Atheism” was a required subject from early grades through university. I have yet to see any atheist writer deal adequately with the Communist record as an example of atheist morality.

    You write “that in order for us to live in a harmonious society, we need to have conform to a certain level of ethical behavior” and that people can figure this out for themselves. But, given the long history of loyalty to the evils of religion, can they? And even if they can, Do they choose or want to? Do enough of them choose or want to for them to make a difference? Having painted humans as easy dupes of the flim-flam schemes of religion, how can you suddenly decide we can be relied upon to develop a solid foundation for ethics? In portraying religion as such unmitigated evil, the new atheism has undermined all of their arguments based on trusting the mind that has been so badly been fooled for so long.

    The new atheists have made the logical error of trying to ‘prove too much.’ Yet if they correct the error by nuancing their condemnation of religion, much of their case about the need to get rid of religion because of its unmitigated evils comes crashing down. This rather elementary and obvious logical mistake is one of the reasons the new atheist authors cannot be relied on philosophically.

    Furthermore, what authority do these home-made morals have? And who will decide which morals prevail in case of a conflict? How will that decision be made and on what basis? What sanctions will be used – for without sanctions of some kind a world in which everyone reasons their way to their own moral code will quickly dissolve in conflict? Once again we see why Kant adopted his postulatory theism. If nothing else, God fulfilled a very useful and necessary function.

    When you talk about normal behavior being “good” you are slipping in easy but careless eloquence. Four examples should suffice to lead you to re-examine your argument. Bullying among children and youth is a natural and normal behavior. Is it therefore “good”? Men (especially older men) have a tendency to chase women – especially younger women and girls; this is also normal. Is it therefore “good”? The strong conquering and dominating the weak is also natural and normal – indeed, that was the biological and Darwinian basis of Nazi philosophy which was basically applied Darwinism. (Yes, there were Nazi philosophers). Is it therefore “good”? Theft is natural and normal. Is it “good”? So is greed. Obviously ‘normal’, i.e. ‘natural’ by itself doesn’t cut it as a criterion in ethics.

    Of course religions have power over people. Do you think atheism won’t if it faces the challenges of being the foundational philosophy of a society and/or state? We already see the answer in Hitchens who thinks that teaching children is child abuse. How can we allow child abuse – without legally penalizing religious parents for their beliefs? Dawkins agrees with him and so does Harris who tells us that even tolerating religion is evil. (See The End of Faith). Now ‘tolerance’ of an idea is an evil – – this certainly reveals that if religion has a totalitarian streak/potential, so does atheism. When you suggest that religion is a “mild form of mental illness” you are joining the totalitarian bandwagon. If people are mentally ill, they need to be treated – and if they have the virulent ‘religion disease’ with its long history of nothing but emmiserating humanity – then obviously enforced treatment is necessary for the good of society. Your statement lays more groundwork for the atheist totalitarian state already visible in outline in Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris.

    By the way if you want to take Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper as an example of what religion does, I suggest you read up on a good atheist named Lavrentiy Beria. I guarantee you, I can match you nutcase for nutcase.

  3. HBL wrote: “Most people have an innate sense of ethics and morality, but many do not. You are correct that much of this sense of right and wrong is behavioral and is tought (sic) by parents….”

    I echo Ian’s response to this. That is, that if this innate sense of ethics has led us to create “religion” (as you define it) then we should think twice before we trust this innate sense.

    But I’d like you to consider the idea that conscience or an innate sense of right and wrong is like any other latent or nascent capacity. It needs training in order to become dependable and fully developed. If a child shows some musical ability and aspires to be a guitarist, say, which would you do: 1) find the child a guitar teacher to develop that capacity or 2) leave the child on her own to figure out how to be a guitar player on her own — and I mean on her own. No guitar books, no coaching from an already accomplished guitarist, just her and the guitar.

    I think you’d agree that would be illogical. I believe the same is true of our capacity to develop spiritual or ethical capacities. They need nurturing, training, and guidance.

    You commented: “While it is true that religions can be used to control people to behave in a certain way, it is primarily through fear and intimidation…”

    This is far from universally true, fear and intimidation, in my experience, is a factor in a very narrow margin of fundamentalist theology—a type of theology that doesn’t even exist in some religious communities.

    Fear and intimidation are tools that are much-used in our world in general—in completely secular settings as well as in religious ones. In fact, as Ian points out, the most major attempt at an atheist society also used fear and intimidation to get people to obey.

    Which brings me to a key point: if you contrast the teachings recorded in the scriptures of revealed religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc with the behavior of individuals and institutions that you find “evil,” you will notice that—as Abdu’l-Baha points out—this behavior constitutes a rejection of the moral teachings of faith, rather than obedience to them. In other words, you’re judging religion on what happens when people DON’T obey its teachings.

    I’m sure you know the answer to your question of Elizabeth Smart’s abductor (Is that the ethical behavior that religions expect?). It’is a resounding NO. So I have to wonder why you even ask the question. Do you really think a person is likely to commit a crime simply BECAUSE they are a religious person? Does Elizabeth’s abductor’s behavior follow from a belief in Christ? Which of His teachings, if followed, would result in such behavior? You have family members who believe in God—do you think they would commit such an act BECAUSE of their faith in God?

    It occurs to me, though, that we can have no real dialogue on these points because you’ve given yourself an escape hatch—those of us who believe in God are mentally ill. Therefore, you might safely ignore our mad ramblings. Poit. Narf. 😉

  4. This is an issue that I’m very passionate about, so I’m sorry if I’m coming across a bit strong. From the time I was about five years old and started asking all the typical question about our existance, when anyone (parents, teachers, clergy) responded with something like “because that’s the way god wants it” I would get very indignant and say “that’s a stupid answer, tell me the truth!”

    For over forty years, I have been saying that religion does not have a monopoly on ethical behavior – that, in fact, the opposite is usually the case. Dawkins and Harris have been able to reach a larger audience to promote the exact same thing that I have been saying for so many years, so in my book they are heros.

    My life has been in pursuit of the truth. I don’t settle for “what if” or “some ancient mystic wrote this, so it must be true.” I want to know what it means in the real world.

    And in the real world, religion has done a ‘god awful’ job of creating a world where people act ethically and morally.

    So what is “ethical behavior”? That’s the crux of the issue. It depends on the ‘norms’ of the local community. But the world is evolving, and becoming more integrated. It’s too easy to see what’s going on and pass your personal judgement on the community across the world. While you might get flogged in an Arabic country for wearing shorts to the beach, which most American’s think is barbaric, many of the values that Chrisitans – and even Bahais – promote are just not applicable in our modern society. Yet, these rules were written in some holy book somewhere, so it must be important. Where’s the logic in that?

    Is it ethical to discriminate against people who are gay? Is it ethical to over-populate the planet and kill off all other species? If this ‘god’ had any plan for keeping the world a habitable place for future generations, he’d tell the pope that we don’t need to go forth and multiply any more, and we need to start handing out condoms to everyone on the planet.

    We CAN create a society that treats all people with dignity and respect, where people act ethically and morally, with ecological, environmental, and economical balance. But we certainly can’t do it with religion.

  5. I think the “because God (or mom) said it” method of child-rearing has nothing to do with religion per se. It has to do with parenting models. I promised before I even had kids that I wasn’t going to use shortcuts unless I was in dire circumstance and pretty much stuck to it. That means when my kids asked “why” I tried to explain to them as succinctly as possible, using language that did not talk down to them. As a result my kids actually understand their faith as more than a list of “dos and dont’s” and understand how the teachings relate to daily life and the life of the planet.

    My life has also been about pursuit of the truth. It still is. And—because of my faith, actually—I spend time in that pursuit daily. My chosen calling, though, is all about ‘WHAT IF” and I deal with that question every day of my life in my work. “What if” is what makes us think about who we are and how we got here and what we’re supposed to do while we’re here and where we go when we’re not here any more. It’s a question that begs us to envision a better world where we are not driven by a THEM against US mentality.

    There is no logic to someone being flogged for wearing shorts at the beach and I don’t think anyone here (nor any religious person that I know personally) would suggest that there is. You’re right about religion needing to evolve. In fact, it does, but we’ve gotten this idea that because (as some Christians put it) God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, that means that the social teachings given 2000 years ago or 1000 years ago should apply today. I think one of the most succinct arguments against that is from the writings of Abdu’l-Baha:

    “Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous. ..Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today. Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions… In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide the spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?” (from Foundations of World Unity)

    The issue isn’t religion. it’s us. It’s the way that we have used religion to soothe our fear of change and uncertainty and attempted to create a false safety net of absolutes. It’s the way we have used it to create elite clubs with entrance criteria that invest faith in ritual and formula instead of the extent to which we live by the ethical teachings.

    Before you blame Christ and Christianity (as a body of His teachings) for all the evil done in His name, look at the single most important commandment that He gave. To love God and our fellow human beings. When He’s on His way to the cross, He takes the time to repeat THREE TIMES that IF His followers would be His friends, they must obey one simple commandment—love each other. There are no exceptions given; no conditionals. It’s a simple IF/THEN statement. There’s no call to believe in the blood or resurrection or a trinity or any of the things that have caused Christians to shed each others’ blood (or anyone else’s).

    There are a myriad reasons why those other things (some of which are not even scriptural) took precedence over the simple core teaching of human solidarity, but they have little to do with revealed religion and everything to do with our desires, fears, and laziness.

    From the perspective of Christ (or Buddha or Baha’u’llah or any other revelator) those dogmatic formulas and the bloodshed they caused are indefensible.And they are indefensible, as well, to any person or community of people striving to live by the spiritual teachings of their faith.

    And while we’re on what’s ethical—is it ethical or logical to judge all people of faith (and faith itself) by those whose behavior amounts to a rejection of the Revelator’s core teachings?

    If there is a God and we have edited His religion to our specifications then the buck stops with us, not God. And if there is no God and we have created religion out of whole cloth then, again, the buck stops with us. IMO, to claim otherwise is a dodge and the anger would be more appropriately directed at our own dishonesty.

    I personally, would not want to live in a world in which Christ, Buddha, Baha’u’llah and the other Avatars had never suggested there was another way to live besides by tooth and nail.

    I too believe we can create a society that treats all people with dignity and respect, etc. But we certainly can’t do it without religion. Without religion, I don’t think we’d have a concept of ethics to ameliorate our selfishness, fear and discomfort with the “other.”

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