Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Does atheism foster immorality?

One of the many strange accusations directed against atheists is that we wish to undermine morality. This seems absurd to most humanists since we are, mostly, rather ordinary and conventional. We may not obey the local religious food laws or attend Sunday/Saturday/Friday worship but we’re rather less likely than the religious to lie, steal or assault our neighbours.

So why do they say these things?

Let’s start by asking why people practice a religion. For most believers it’s because that’s how they were raised (a point I heard made by the then Archbishop of Canterbury in 1968!). It’s not because they sought the truth and found that this religion, rather than all the others, expressed it. They also enjoy the rituals (prayers, meditation, hymns, dances) in which they’ve been raised and the fellowship of the believing community.

But it’s hard to see why enjoyment of singing or prayer should lead to the sheer energy, and sometimes hatred, with which religions inspire their followers. The religious often say that their faith gives meaning to their lives and this, I believe, is the key.

There are two kinds of meaning, existential and moral (though they are related).

Religions offer answers to existential questions like: Why are we here? What's the purpose of life? Philosophically these may be category errors but they are, for some people, emotionally powerful. People do not only, or even largely, ask these questions out of curiosity but rather because they find life frightening and want reassurance that are reasons behind the arbitrariness of ordinary life. They are likely to feel most in need of answers when life is most frightening and arbitrary.

Religions also offer answers to moral questions notably: Why should I be good? Most people know that courage, kindness and loyalty, at least to their clan, tribe or nation, are good and that lying, theft and murder are bad. But bad things are sometimes convenient and profitable. Most of us are tempted, and we fear that others may succumb to temptation. It would be reassuring to know that, even if wickedness is rewarded on Earth it will be punished in a future life.

Most religions (including Christianity, Islam, and some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism) therefore promise a future life that is either spiritual (in heaven or hell) or earthly (following reincarnation). This future life provides a basis for divine rewards and punishments.

I believe that religious claims that atheism promotes immorality arise because the religious feel that they would behave wickedly if they did not have the moral meaning provided by their religions. (In fact I think they’re mistaken. In this I think better of them than they seem to think of themselves.) They therefore believe that undermining their ideas of moral meaning, which we do do, must necessarily make people immoral. Their desire – which we generally share – that people should behave morally drives their hostility to atheism.

Of course, there are issues on which Humanist morality really is different from that of the religious. There are various issues, notably about sex, death and personal freedom, on which we generally take positions to which they object. Doubtless this contributes to their feelings. But these aren’t usually the focus of their claims.

It’s likely that the religious anger against atheists has more than one source, but the issue of moral meaning must be a main one.

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