Posted by: Ken Brown | March 14, 2008

The New Atheism as Inadequate Theodicy

I just discovered Ryan Dueck’s excellent blog Rumblings, and an article he wrote on “The New Atheism as Inadequate Theodicy”. It’s a bit long, but worth reading in full. Here’s an excerpt:

The prominence of evil in the new atheism—evil attributed to God, his followers, and the hostile, indifferent planet he is claimed to have made—suggests that the issue is not, as it is often presented, “rational” atheism vs. “superstitious” religion. Rather, the issue is between rival theodicies. If religion is thought to be the root cause of much of the evil in the world, a worldview which urges its removal represents a kind of theodicy.

Evil is identified as such, its causes are described, and a way forward is recommended. What is not provided is a plausible account of why human beings should have such a strong moral reaction to the nature of our environment in the first place.The current instantiation of protest atheism, like similar kinds in the past, relies more heavily on the moral capital accumulated through several millennia of Christian influence than it cares to admit. As such, the theodicy offered by the new atheism, while demonstrating an admirable (even biblical!) degree of moral sensitivity, is, ultimately, inadequate.

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Responses

  1. To play devil’s advocate (without reading the whole piece…yet!) the atheist moral argument usually derives from such concepts as game theory and rational humanism. Accordingly, the goal is to base morality on some kind of mathematically consistent ground that does not rely on ideation beyond the material.

    But, this is problematic in itself since it is hard to figure why this is valued as intrinsically good other than it’s relationship to something not God!

    As I just read today in Berger’s The Sacred Canopy, all religions and ideologies have theodicies of some sort that rationalize disorder. He characterizes it in terms of anomy (lawlessness) versus nomism (law, order). When anomy exists, it is human nature to appeal to a structure that is not materially apparent since what is materially apparent has not order and thus, seems irrational and incongruent…

    Thanks for the link!

  2. Drew, I think you’ll enjoy the article; Ryan actually takes Berger’s view as a starting point.

  3. Samuel Skinner
    It is a long version of the moral and transendant arguement. It still sucks.

    For an argument see here (this topic pops up to much)
    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mark_vuletic/moral.html

  4. Samuel Skinner
    It is a long version of the moral and transendant arguement. It still sucks.

    For an argument see here (this topic pops up to much)
    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mark_vuletic/moral.html

  5. Samuel,
    Mark Vuletic’s article that you link is little more than a series of misrepresentations; indeed, the same webpage includes an adequate response, here.

    More to the point, however, it doesn’t even address the basic question Ryan is exploring. Mark explicitly states that: “I, for one, see no reason to believe there are such things” as “moral facts.” In other words, he does not think that morality is objective to begin with (though admittedly the point of his article, such as it is, does not depend on this). Yet it is just such a position that Ryan is addressing. Like Mark, the “new atheists” never tire of telling us that morality is not objective, and yet at the same time folks like Dawkins and Hitchens incessantly claim that religion leads to “evil.”

    This is a clear contradiction, however, for if nothing is objectively good or evil, then all they are really saying is that they don’t like religion, which is hardly an argument against it. Ryan notes that they do have a more consistent alternative – to argue that theists fail to live up to their own claim of moral objectivity (but this is more of an argument against religious people than against religious ideas, for Christianity has always affirmed that humans are fallen beings) – but such does not explain why the atheist insists so strongly upon his moral viewpoint. In the end the “new atheists” do seem to be borrowing “moral capital” from the very obejctive view they are denying.

  6. Samuel Skinner
    I’ll be honest- it was late and I linked to the first site google spat out. I apologize- I was extremely tired. I can’t see how he is wrong though. What do you mean by transendant moral facts? And, most importantly, why do you need them for morality?

    However, I’ll defend the new atheists. Or at least myself. I do believe in objective morality. The means may differ, but the ends are always, always the same.

    Here is how it works. The is only one best way to achieve a given result or there is multiple ways that work equally well. However when dealing with morality, if there are differances between them they are minor. In this case the goal is human happiness. Since there is only one best path, there is an objective standard. Obviously, lacking brains that are super computers we use rules of them, hueristics or moral rules to guide are actions- things that we follow because breaking them is almost always bad.

    Note that none of that borrows from theists. Also note that this has completely diverged from the basis for rational atheism (it is true) and is using argument from ignorance (I can’t think of a secular morality, therefore god did it!). However, I’d like to hear your answers about the morality part- after all, I never tire of understanding morality and what people think- that and it is rather important.

  7. Samuel Skinner
    I’ll be honest- it was late and I linked to the first site google spat out. I apologize- I was extremely tired. I can’t see how he is wrong though. What do you mean by transendant moral facts? And, most importantly, why do you need them for morality?

    However, I’ll defend the new atheists. Or at least myself. I do believe in objective morality. The means may differ, but the ends are always, always the same.

    Here is how it works. The is only one best way to achieve a given result or there is multiple ways that work equally well. However when dealing with morality, if there are differances between them they are minor. In this case the goal is human happiness. Since there is only one best path, there is an objective standard. Obviously, lacking brains that are super computers we use rules of them, hueristics or moral rules to guide are actions- things that we follow because breaking them is almost always bad.

    Note that none of that borrows from theists. Also note that this has completely diverged from the basis for rational atheism (it is true) and is using argument from ignorance (I can’t think of a secular morality, therefore god did it!). However, I’d like to hear your answers about the morality part- after all, I never tire of understanding morality and what people think- that and it is rather important.

  8. Hey Samuel,
    I’m glad you came back to continue the discussion. And I’m glad that you (unlike many of your fellow atheists) accept moral objectivity, but your approach seems to rest on an equivocation: what do you mean by “human happiness”?

    Do you mean “the happiness of all humans” or of “the most” humans, or just of yourself? This is no small point, for the only reason the statement “human happiness” seems like a valid secular objective goal – the kind of thing that every (sane) person would identify as such – is because it is left vague. As soon as we make it more specific we find that not everyone does agree with the goal – some couldn’t care less whether anyone else is happy, so long as they themselves are. But if we disagree, then (if morality is objective) that must mean that some humans are wrong about the goal. If such is the case, then that means the goal does not depend on what any (particular) humans think about it, which is just another way of saying that the goal transcends human nature.

    It is one thing to say that, given a particular goal, there is only one best way to accomplish it, and so that one way is objectively the one that must be pursued. But that is just moving the argument back one step, you still have not explained why any one particular goal should be the one pursued. Is “human happiness” the goal simply because this is what (most) people desire? Yet what would that prove? What turns the fact that (some/most) people desire a thing into an obligation to desire a thing? What about those who do not desire it, or who desire it in ways that contradict the desires of other? What if one person gets the most happiness from torturing others? On what basis can you, as an atheist, say that his means of attaining happiness is “wrong”? You can say that you are willing to prevent him from pursuing that particular means of attaining happiness, but to say that he is wrong to do so is to say that morality transcends his own moral viewpoint. And if it transcends him, then it transcends all of us.

  9. Samuel Skinner
    oh, human happiness for everyone. Isn’t that the point of morality and ethics? Making the world a better place?

    As for psychopaths… well, there is a reason they are few. Their minds are warped, and hence so are their desires and what they get happiness out of. We don’t condone their bloodlust anymore than we would condone bigotry- it leads to “non optimal” (Aka bad) results.

    Just because morality transends an individual, doesn’t, mean it transends the group. A single individual doesn’t have to worry about morality, but more than one does. It is a product of living in groups, just like traffic laws.

    Why do we have to do this? Why do we have to be moral? We don’t- it is entirely voluntary. You can simply do enough to convince people that you are a good person if you want- some of us simply want to do the best we can. Morality done out of compulsion isn’t morality at all.

    I hope that helps.

  10. Samuel,
    Thanks for the clarifications, but you still seem to be equivocating. On the one hand you say that you accept moral objectivity and declare that the minds of psychopaths are “warped,” because their actions reduce the happiness of others (which means that the happiness of others is objectively valuable, despite the failure of a few to recognize this). But then on the other hand you conclude that we don’t have to be moral, that moral codes are limited to the group, like traffic laws. I assume your point is that, just as the very existence of traffic makes certain laws better than others (at ensuring a safe and efficient commute), so the very existence of society makes certain moral codes better than others (at promoting the corporate good, or “human happiness”).

    That’s fine and I agree with it, but the problem is in defining the “group.” You say it includes “everyone” but on what grounds? Such is not required by the mere existence of society or traffic. It is one thing to dismiss the ocassional sociopath or reckless driver as ignorant of the public good (which also benefits, indeed enables, their anti-social behaviors), but what about when the whole group determines that its best interests includes, for instance, enslaving a rival group, or simply killing them off. You can’t then say that they are wrong to do so unless you concede that morality transcends, not just the individual, but even the group.

    If you object that the only valid “group” includes the entire human race, then are you not assuming an objective value for “the entire human race”? If you respond that that is simply what you value, but no one is actually “obligated” to accept it, then are you not denying moral objectivity altogether?

  11. Samuel Skinner
    Actually what I meant by “you don’t have to be moral” is that being moral is a choice- you can choose to lie cheat and steal if you like. It could benefit you, it might not. But morality doesn’t have a “you should be moral because x” where everyone nods there heads and say “that makes sense”. When I say it is optional, I mean there is no one forcing you to do more than the bare minimum. The minimum is enough to avoid prison and to get enough regard for your neighbors as you put out work. All you get out of being good is making the world a better place and the satisfaction of knowing you did your part.

    I’ll give you an example- there are some people who live up to a much higher standard than… just about everyone else.
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/02/28/60minutes/main3889496.shtml
    In short people like Stan Brock.

  12. Samuel,
    I completely agree with your last comment: morality is certainly optional in the sense you note (indeed, the whole point is that we have a choice!). Further, there is nothing (in this life) that ensures that the moral choice will always be the most beneficial choice for you, (again, that is central to the concept of morality: that the “right” thing is not always what’s best for you is precisely what makes it a meaningful choice).

    But that doesn’t change the transcendent nature of morality. For if it is in any sense possible to make the wrong choice, if there is any sense in which the correctness or falsehood of a choice is based on the impact on the larger good, if there is any sense at all in speaking of “minimum” or “higher” morality, that is to assume a standard that is over and above all of us. To say this, I must still insist, is to say that morality is transcendent.

  13. Samuel Skinner
    Transendant means it applies equally for everyone, not that it is unreachable. Unreachable morality is refered to as “unreachable”. It is a silly concept though- given that morality is things we should do, it can’tb e unreachable- some people do live up to the ideals and expectations after all.

  14. Samuel,
    My point in saying that morality is “above” us is not that it is unreachable, but that it is something we are obliged to pursue by nature, not something we create ourselves. You are certainly correct that in any given instance, we must be capable of choosing correctly, but clearly that doesn’t mean we always will do so. It seems trivially obvious that even the best of us fails to do so quite often, though some more often than others.

    On the other hand, transcendent does indeed mean that it applies to everyone, and that is the whole point. But “equally” is a problematic qualifier, for the way it applies to each person is going to depend on their circumstances (thus, I prefer to speak of moral objectivity than moral absolutes – for there is always a right thing to do, but the “right thing” can vary with the situation).

    Are you agreeing with me or disagreeing?

  15. We aren’t obliged to pursue being good. People ignore morality quite easily.

    As for your stance on objectivism (for morality, not the ideology), I agree- a rich person has different obligations than a poor one and a whole person has different ones than a cripple, although the same rules apply to them all.

  16. Samuel,
    Thanks for continuing the conversation, you have helped clarify my thinking in a number of ways. I think we still need to clear up what we mean by “obligation” though. You say people are not “obliged to pursue being good”, but then agree that different people do have different “obligations”. How do you reconcile these? I think we have a choice whether to be good or not, but not a choice about what it means to be good. Do you agree? Let me explain a bit further:

    We are all obligated to be moral (though our individual obligations differ with our situations), but we have a choice whether to fulfill those obligations. To make the wrong choice is to act immorally, but it does not remove the moral obligation, which is objectively relevant whether we fufill it or not.

    I’ll give an example: As a father, I have certain moral obligations to my daughter which other people do not have – to feed, shelter and love her, etc. I have these obligations because I made the choice to have a child, yes, but I do not get to choose what those obligations are. My daughter has these needs whether I like it or not, and as her father, I am obligated to fulfill them, whether I like it or not. Now, I can choose not to fulfill these obligations, my own life may even be happier for doing so, but such would not remove these obligations from me, it would only make me immoral (and more specifically, a bad father). This assumes that what it means to be a good father is objective: I cannot modify the standard by my choices, I can only choose to live up to it or fail to do so.

    Do you agree? If not, how would you define morality apart from such obligations?


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