Friday, May 24, 2013

Atheists Can Be Good

Pope Francis created a minor kerfuffle when in a homily the other day he told the story of a priest who was asked if even atheists had been redeemed by Jesus:
"Even them, everyone," the pope answered, according to Vatican Radio. "We all have the duty to do good," he said. "Just do good and we'll find a meeting point," the pope said in a hypothetical conversation in which someone told a priest: "But I don't believe. I'm an atheist."
Matt Lewis at The Daily Caller asks:
Who can oppose that?

His [the pope's] comments may also speak to the long-held notion among some Christians that, having no eternal life to worry about, atheists lack an incentive for good behavior. Doing good, thus becomes an irrational example of cognitive dissonance.

But there is an earthly incentive to living a good life. There are consequences to bad behavior in the here and now. And whether this is because a virtuous life coincides with God’s plan, or whether it’s merely the product of nature’s arbitrary laws, it is observably true.
All of this is true. In fact, I agree with everything both Lewis and the pope said. One can do good things whether one believes in God or not, but I think a larger point is being missed in some of the commentary on Francis' homily. When the pope says that an atheist can do good what he means, I assume, is that the behavior is good, i.e. has objective moral worth, in light of a theistic worldview. In an atheistic worldview there can be no objective moral value to anything.

In other words, to say that an act is good is to say that it's the right thing to do, but if atheism is true then the only criterion for whether our behavior is right or wrong is whether it produces desirable consequences for me. If atheism is true there really is no behavior that's good except for how it affects me, and to say that something is wrong is simply to point out that I don't like it. On atheism moral worth can only be subjective, it can't be objective.

On atheism, there's no axiological distinction between selfishness and generosity, kindness and cruelty, other than in the consequences these things produce for oneself. Their consequences for others are of no moral moment unless I care about those others. Thus atheism, taken to it's full conclusion, leads to an egoistic might-makes-right ethic wherein whatever I have the power to do is right as long as I benefit from it. Or, it leads to nihilism.

I made this point, in a general way, in the comment section of Lewis' column. A fellow by the name of Winston Blake replied:
Nature is pure war with every man against another...Fear of death is the only way to keep the peace, so man is civilized by the threat of violence against him for transgressions upon his neighbor. The only thing that makes man civilized is the ability for the weakest to kill the strongest. This happens either by learned machination or by confederacy. "Morality" is just another esoteric hobgoblin.
Winston is saying that morality is simply a convention we adopt to allow people to live in relative security. It has no objective reality. Given his atheism, he's right. His reply is essentially an admission that apart from a divine moral authority there are no objective moral values or duties and thus all behavioral decisions reduce to the question "what's in it for me?"

Winston is a real-life avatar of the ideas of a fictional character in my novel (see the link to In the Absence of God at the top of this page) named Brian Davik. Davik, like Winston, sees clearly that, as Dostoyevsky put it, if God is dead then everything is permitted. I hope you'll read Absence if you haven't already.

Throughout the story I argue that the only escape for the atheist who wishes to avoid nihilism and who rejects egoism, who believes that there really is an objective right and wrong, who really believes that kindness is better than cruelty and that selflessness is better than selfishness, is to renounce his atheism.