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Well-Behaved Atheists

I spend – or perhaps I should say I waste – a lot of time on Facebook every day.  It has become an addiction.  But I comfort myself with the thought that it’s a less dangerous addiction than drugs or alcohol or cigarettes, from all of which I am, happily, free.

For the most part, my interlocutors on Facebook are persons with whom I share rough philosophical or political agreements.  I think this is not unusual; for persons who disagree with one another soon learn to avoid one another on Facebook.

Hence my Facebook friends are usually conservative Protestants, or more-or-less orthodox Catholics, or political conservatives.  Very rarely, to my regret, does a political or religious liberal enter into dialogue with me.  Most liberals that I once had conversations with have decided that I’m too reprehensible a character to have any further dealings with.

Why would they want to waste their time in conversation with a man who disapproves of abortion and homosexuality and transgenderism and who even, from time to time, has a good word to say about Donald Trump?

My attitude toward Trump gets me in trouble with both liberals and conservatives.  Liberals hate me because I don’t place him in the same category with Hitler, Mussolini, Nero, and Attila the Hun.  Conservatives hate me because I don’t think of him as a second coming of – perhaps not Jesus Christ (most of them won’t go that far) – but at least Joan of Arc.

I have made it plain on Facebook that I deplore Trump’s personality, that is, his vulgarity and egomania; but at the same time I very much approve of many of his policies – above all his nomination of conservative judges, that is, judges who promise to read laws according to the intention of the lawmakers.

Well, the other day I happened to have a rare experience, an actual dialogue with a liberal.  I can’t remember how we got into this, but he disagreed with my opinion that the coming of atheism to the United States would be a bad thing.  He pointed to a number of studies that purport to show that non-religious kids tend to be more altruistic than religious kids.

Now I haven’t examined these studies closely, but I can easily imagine that the facts are as reported.  Nonreligious children in America have grown up in a society whose moral traditions are Christian.  Why wouldn’t we expect that these kids would inherit these moral traditions while at the same time being liberated from church-going and Christian doctrinal beliefs?

And wouldn’t we expect that the parents of such kids, aware that their Christian neighbors might accuse them of leading the kids into immorality, would place a special emphasis on the importance of being kind – whatever that might mean – to others?

Isn’t that in fact one of the great arguments that nonreligious people make in favor of “rising above” Christianity, that by doing so one becomes kinder, more tolerant?  The history of Christianity, in their view, is a history of war, persecution, general intolerance, and cruelty.

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In her famous 1959 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy,” the English Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued that atheism leads to a rejection of the idea of moral law: for if there is no God-the-moral-lawgiver there can be no moral law.

But she notes, it doesn’t lead to this rejection immediately.  If a Christian country were to turn atheist it would remain more or less Christian in its morality for another generation or two after it had dropped its Christian beliefs.  For it is easier to get rid of beliefs than it is to get rid of moral customs, even though the latter may be logically based on the former.

Another way of putting this: Christian morality is like the famous chicken who had its head cut off yet still ran around the barnyard for a few moments after decapitation – Christian doctrine being the head, Christian morals the body.

I imagine that most Americans who deliberately choose to be atheists are well aware that many people will suspect them, because of their atheism, of having an inclination toward serious immorality; for such suspicions have been common, not just throughout the long history of Christianity, but even in the ancient pre-Christian world.

In ancient Athens, for instance, the public was quite willing to tolerate almost any kind of unorthodox religious belief, but it was not willing to tolerate atheism.  “Atheist,” even in its Greek and Latin equivalents, has always been rather a dirty word.  And thus it will not be surprising if our present-day deliberate atheists shield themselves from this suspicion by making special efforts to bring their children up to be nice boys and girls.

There are, I suggest, two ways of figuring out whether or not atheism leads to wickedness.  One way, the a posteriori way, is to see what happens after a society has been more or less atheistic for a few generations.  We humans are slow learners.  It will take that long to draw the logical implications that follow from the axiom that the universe has no moral foundation.

Already there are indications of what will happen, the most striking of these being the widespread moral acceptance of abortion, that is, the killing of unborn human beings.

The other way is the a priori way.  If we drop our traditional God-based morality, it is almost certain that we’ll turn to a utilitarian morality, a morality which, when taken seriously, says that “anything goes” – provided it “works” or at least seems likely to work.

Some utilitarian moralists are very cautious or tentative in their predictions of what will “work.”  More radical utilitarians (e.g., Lenin and Stalin) throw caution to the winds in their zeal to make this a better world.

And so, while it is pleasant to learn that the sons and daughters of atheists are commonly well-behaved, I don’t think we should take too much comfort from this fact. The consequence of abandoning God is only just beginning.

 

*Image: Jupiter and Thetis by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1811 [Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, France]. Thetis, a sea nymph, begs Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) to intervene in the fate of her son Achilles who then fighting in the Trojan War. Her pleas went unanswered.

 

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.