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Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Trademark on Morals

A friend of mine wrote an article this morning in our daily paper illustrating the conundrum of morality without faith. This is an interesting contention and one that has been extensively explored; nevertheless, I thought I'd bite.

Can an atheist be moral?

My friend poses the question this way: If there is no God than explain the problem of good in a world.

The problem of good in a world, by the way, is an intellect’s way of asking for an argument for good; or in this case, an argument for good without God. It is code for "do please, explain" or the elitist version of “Riddle me this, Batman.”

For if there is no God than explain the origin of good? The root of right-doing? How can one explain morals without a Creator? If we’re just a collection of 10 trillion cells (latest estimate), where does the will to do right come in? Moreover, without a clearly identified architect of ethics, would they exist? Would there even be good? Would there be a right? Or a wrong?

So I ask myself, is this true? Without God (and thus a God-esque infusion within each of our shells) would life on earth simply be overrun by evil, by greed, by hatred and fear – immorality run-a-muck as it were? And, if the answer is “yes” but these above mentioned qualities also exist– then what say you?

If "Good is God’s" -

yes, that's right, if "Good is God's",

and, "God is Good"

- what about evil?

My friend, and his friends, and their friends will undoubtedly pull-in at this particular juncture “free-will.” It is, perhaps, the faithfuls’ greatest trump card for where can one go in a conversational match after free-will is thrown in the ring. Simple put, free-will justifies any and all human behavior within the context of a God. And, faith eliminates the need for proof, so …

So, Socrates would certainly have sub-questions to pose here, but I’ve digressed.

Back to whether atheists can me moral, or, in other words is “Good - God’s”; are morals and ethics crafted into humankind by the Divine?

Let’s look at our words for a moment.

Philanthropy means an effort to promote the welfare of others. In its original form the term was not directly attributed to religion, moral impetus or ethical drive.

The word “altruism” emerged nearly two hundred years after the word “philanthropy.”

Altruism was a word coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in an effort to support his ethical doctrine and thus described goodwill towards others as a moral act; a moral act of unselfish behavior - literally marrying goodwill to ethics.

So it begs the questions, before the word “altruism” linked goodwill with ethics - what was philanthropy? Could it not of been goodwill towards man with a moral compass and in the absence of a spiritual core? Does religion really have a trademark on morals and ethics?

I'd like to note that in my friend’s article he addresses the scientist breed of atheism, which is fine, yet in my experience the atheist-scientist-religious argument always starts and ends in the same spot, which can get a little dizzying.

Alas, for a little fun, let's play it out...

The scientist says to the religious man,

"Prove to me God exists."


Scientist then says, “See, you can't.”

Then the religious man says,

“Disprove to me God exists.”


Religious man then says, “See, you can't.”

Here rests my interest in exploring atheists and morals and religion through a philosophical lens. As far as science and facts are concerned there is little room for these inquiries to be resolved, so let's move it from science (although we will touch on it a bit later) and into the hands of philosophers.

Herein stands Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Sartre - and Kant.

Granted these are not the boys I’d invite to my house for a wine and cheese soiree, nevertheless they are some of the most influential minds of humankind and happen to shop at Atheist-mart – so let’s jump in.

Who better to start with than Kant?

Because, we all know that Machiavelli took moral standards and obliterated them which makes a budding love-affair with “atheists & morals” bleak - (point for religion, “Atheists can't be moral” One-Love).

But, we can’t forget Machiavelli alone, influenced Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Dewey in regard to virtue – so, ‘tis a courtesy bow and we are moving on…

We know that Nietzsche is the self-proclaimed "Anti-Christ"; therefore, by unanimous decision disqualifying him from this argument just for being offensive.

And, quite frankly, I haven't the time nor the energy to find a light to shine on the depths of darkness that encapsulates the minds of Freud and Marx - as they did not truly acknowledge good; or if good was acknowledged (Marx), it was too good to be held in the religious choices of his day; therefore, awarding three more points to “Atheists can’t be moral” (Score: Four - Love).

Shall we continue…

Sartre, perhaps, is the sadist of lot because to him there was no God, and with no God all things were permissible and thus nothing had meaning. And with no God and no meaning, then we are again, sipping lattes with the scientist-atheist club who argue that earth (and its creatures) are a physical mass and nothing more. There really is no proof (I mean Petri dish proof) of the contrary, so where can we go …

But, you and I both know, that there is good and goodwill – so Sir Sad Sartre is out (Score: Five-Love) albeit the question still remains is “Good - God’s” and God’s alone.

Or, is there even the slightest chance it is a human-thing, and therefore could exist without the notion, or acceptance, or belief in God. In fact, if it was purely human and an atheist was moral, then what could the power of humanness bring?

Really now, it’s time to find Kant. Shan’t we?

Kant argues that if moral law came from God not human beings, then we would not be free in the sense of being autonomous. Kant then argues that man must be autonomous; therefore the moral law must not come from God but from man. Wait. What was that? Again please!

If Good is God’s, and we are of God, than we must be good; therefore free-will would not be free-will but ordained-will.

This in my view is like saying to a child,

"O.k. you can go into the candy store and pick out one candy, absolutely any candy, but just one.” And, then after the child has thought long and hard about it, and has finally made a decision, saying to her,

“Oh, no sweetie, any candy but that one.”

This does not sound like the God I know.

To state plainly the point of this analogy, if God is influencing us to act a certain way, free-will is compromised and an unavoidable paradox emerges.

If there is free-will (which would indeed justify an all-loving God even with evil and suffering in the world) then we must be autonomous.

If we are autonomous than God did not create morals and moral laws, human beings did.

Good is not God's alone even if God is Absolute Good.

If human beings created morals and moral laws than not only can an atheist be moral but we might have more accountability for moral and ethical behavior here on earth (and, not just the ultimate retirement plan as an incentive).

Socrates and Aristotle point to true happiness springing from aligning with moral norms, irrespective of a God. In other words, it is the highest human drive to be aligned with moral law, even if that moral law was created by us.

If Good is not God’s alone and is a human creation – just imagine the power of humankind.

And, imagine just for a moment, how proud God must be of his creation.