Friday, May 1, 2009

Non-Theism and Other Minority Views

The recent report of the American Religious Identification Survey and its mention in various outlets, including the NYT, has generated some heated discussion about ‘atheism,’ religion in the U.S., and related hot potatoes (for example: here, here, here, and here).
Given that the very term ‘atheism’ is controversial and variously defined, I prefer ‘non-theism.’ I’m a non-theist. Some non-theists apparently now feel the need to announce their pride in being such; at first, this struck me as odd. Why ought one to be proud of not believing that a purported supernatural entity exists? It is not quite like being proud to not believe in the existence of cats or molecules - things for which there is incontrovertible evidence such that not believing they exist would be a rather bold stance to take.
But, of course, it can be bold to say one does not believe in a named purported supernatural entity if one feels that many others do believe in that entity and look askance at anyone who does not. In other words, there really is a social difference between saying, “I do not believe in unicorns” and “I do not believe in God/gods.” At least, in our nation, there is a difference. Hence the news that the number of U.S. citizens who report no religious affiliation has doubled in recent years might well be heartening to those who have felt their status as non-believers to be a source of social isolation or condemnation. (Although, really, the survey results do not mean that the number of non-theists has doubled.)
I admit this comes as something of a surprise to me, because most of the people with whom I work and spend time are either non-theists or theists who do not think non-theists are subnormal, deviant, or unclean. As far as I can tell, they think we are like them, except that we do not believe in the supernatural entity/entities in which they believe. But, in reading some of the blogging on the emergence of organized and defiant non-theists, I have discovered that there are apparently sane and decent folks who have some very unattractive notions about non-theists. I think these are worth exploring.

1) Many theists appear to be convinced that objective morality is possible only if premised on a belief in [some] god[s]. Typically, what I have read assumes that the god in question is the Christian one, but it is not clear to me that this is a necessary element of the thesis.
2) Consequent on the first notion is the belief that non-theists cannot inculcate moral perspectives in their children. Predictably, our children will end up as drug-addicts, homosexuals, etc. (One comment I read predicted multiple tattooing.)
3) Many theists also seem to assume that one is either a theist or a materialist and determinist [what philosophers might term a ‘mechanist,’ a la Hobbes or La Mettrie]. In other words, they see no metaphysical positions other than one which requires the existence of a supernatural creator and one which is reductivist about mind [etc.] and denies human freedom.
4) At least some of the theists whose comments I have encountered labor under the misapprehension that non-theists necessarily come from broken homes or are former theists who had a bad experience with a particular denomination (Catholicism seems to be the special bogeyman, here).

Now, this is a complex collection of claims, and I do not say that every theist who abhors or dislikes non-theists accepts all of them. In fact, such theists may not accept any of these claims; they may simply think non-theists are abominable and let it go at that. But each is interesting, in its own way, and merits some serious response – as contrasted with mocking the theists’ belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Don’t mistake me: the FSM is funny and rather cute, but ridicule is not a good way to start a conversation. So, let’s look at the Four Theses in turn.

1) Atheists cannot believe in or defend objective moral standards.
I have to say that most of the ‘arguments’ in support of this claim are question begging ones of the type: “Only God can provide an objective ground for morality; therefore, without belief in God, one cannot assert objective standards.” What puzzles me, however, is the inability of those who espouse this view to hear any alternatives. So, for example, one might point out the many, many non-theistic [especially, non-Christian] objective moral views with which the history of thought has favored us, but the denier simply denies that these have any merit. Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill – no matter how illustrious the name, the response is simple denial. Not Reason, not Nature, not the Human Condition or Human Flourishing – nothing but a god will do the trick.
If one goes on the attack, so to speak, the results are much the same. One can point out that either (a) god[s] accepts the Good and Right because they are the Good and Right – in which case no god is needed, or that (b) god[s] simply selects the Good and Right – in which case the Good and the Right are not objectively grounded at all; they are just the choices of some entity we hope will not make a mess of it. The response will be simple denial [at best].
2) Atheists cannot pass on moral views to their children.
Let’s face it, this is just peculiar on many levels. Is the underlying idea that the children of non-theists are more resistant to parental instruction than the children of theists? If so, it is not clear that this is a bad thing; on the other hand, it seems fairly unlikely in light of the number of young people who reject the religious views of their parents. Perhaps it is that the children of non-theists, once they discover the shortcomings of their merely-mortal parents, will not have the back-up authority of a third party as is available to the children of theists. At best, this would suggest that the children of theists are less likely to fall away from the moral teachings of their parents than are the children of non-theists. Hardly equivalent to the original claim that non-theists just cannot pass on their moral views. Besides which, if the kids decide Mom and Dad are full of it about morality, why should they follow the old folks on religious doctrine? Youthful rejection of the flawed ‘rents is rarely measured or selective.
And, of course, we have not touched on the assumption that the religiously-based morality that Mom and Dad want to pass on is the correct or best one. We need not even challenge the objective moral wisdom of the divinity in question,here.

Perhaps Mom/Dad/the minister/priest/priestess/reverend/rabbi/whatever has got the god’s/gods’ message wrong? There’s a dreadful prospect: generation after generation accepting moral falsehood as the truth. Religiously-based beliefs in slavery as natural and good are a useful example of this possibility.
3) Non-theists must be mechanists.
So, a blog is not the place to rehearse centuries of metaphysics. Perhaps it is sufficient to suggest that those who think this is the only alternative to an ontology based on supernatural beings and/or creators do some reading about the history of western and eastern metaphysics? Not that anyone has to become an expert. But, just get a sense of what is and has been out there. Heck, just take a look at Aristotle [not St. Thomas’ ‘Aristotle,’ but Aristotle himself, please]. Or, look at contemporary physics, which is really not the reductionist materialism of Newton or Bacon. (Pace Newton, who said that god is “everywhere and everywhen.”) And, if you want non-theists arguing for the possibility of human autonomy and responsibility – well, just read some contemporary ethics.
Now, I do realize that Richard Dawkins, and others, have provided fuel for this particular ideological fire. But, again, branch out, read, look at the diversity of metaphysical views which do not posit or do not require a supernatural creator for explanatory purposes. J. S. Mill may have been mistaken about many things, but he was surely correct that belief supported by knowledge, reflection, and self-scrutiny is more meaningful – and stronger – than belief clung to unthinkingly.
4) Non-theists are the products of unhappy homes or unhappy experiences with [someone else’s] religion.
This is an empirical claim, and evidence is not offered. It might be interesting to have a respectable polling group do a survey of non-theists and theists to see what their backgrounds are. However [ANECDOTAL WARNING!], none of my non-theist colleagues is the product of a broken home nor of a failed Catholic upbringing, as far as I know. Mostly, they just cannot find any good reason to believe in a god-like entity and, being committed to the Rule of Reason, do not commit themselves to belief in what does not seem to exist. My partner is a ‘recovered’ Catholic, but his non-theism seems to be independent of his hostility to the Catholic church; again, theism just does not make sense to him.
In closing, I want to mention one line of theistic commentary on non-theists that I came across. Here, the claim is made that, yes, we non-theists can ‘be ethical.’ I appreciate that. On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about some of the ‘defense’ of us non-believers:

Atheists are people who, whether they like it or not, have the law of God written on their hearts (Rom. 2:15). They are subject to the same laws of our country (and other countries), and they have a sense of right and wrong. They often work with people who are religious and have ethical standards, as well as non-believers who are don't, so they are exposed to all sorts of moral behavior. In addition, they often form their own moral standards based on what suits them. Besides, things like robbery, lying, stealing, etc., can get you imprisoned, so it is practical and logical for an atheist to be ethical and work within the norms of social behavior. However you want to look at it, atheists, generally, are honest, hardworking people.
Nevertheless, some Christians raise the question, "What is to prevent an atheist from murdering and stealing? After all, they have no fear of God and no absolute moral code." The answer is simple: Atheists are capable of governing their own moral behavior and getting along in society the same as anyone else.

So, it seems that my imagined moral decision-making is simply reading off “god’s” rules as written on my heart. Well, substitute ‘Light of Reason’ for ‘god[s]’ and I might agree.
Reference is made, in defense of my capacity to be ethical, to my need to meet social norms and have a ‘nice’ life. I don’t object to that ‘defense,’ as far as it goes. But, I do object to the implication that I will shift my conduct and character according to what is advantageous to me or according to what my particular society decrees through its laws. The implication is that non-theists cannot act on principle. This is false. With no belief in a supernatural creator or other supernatural beings, I do act contrary to my self-interest, even contrary to the interests of those I love. Principled conduct is not the private domain of the theist. Indeed, we non-theists have to be rather careful about our selection of principles, precisely because to fail to meet them is to fail our own rationally scrutinized aspirations – not simply to annoy a deity.


  1. "One can point out that either (a) god[s] accepts the Good and Right because they are the Good and Right – in which case no god is needed, or that (b) god[s] simply selects the Good and Right – in which case the Good and the Right are not objectively grounded at all"

    How many ways can we say false dichotomy fallacy?

    That you would list this as a compelling argument makes me think you do not understand the issue at all or how a theist comes to it. We need to be able to talk about things from a reasoned perspective and not just spout clichés he have learned over the years. This sounds like an argument you learned early on and you just trot out because you think it sounds convincing.

    Your argument assumes reality is something that exists over God.

    I hope I can make you understand this. The Bible makes a very profound statement in Genesis 1:1. "In the beginning God..." God was in existence eternally before any creation. This means that God is the author of reality, He is not subject to it. This case is not covered by your false dichotomy which assumes God must either look at reality and come up with Good and Right or willy nilly choose it.

    If God exists above reality, your false dichotomy is answered. God has invented the reality that exists. Thus when God chooses it is not subjective. His invented reality is objective. It is only because you do not consider the true Creator God that you think your false dichotomy is reasonable.

  2. I think the notion of 'objective ethics' is problematic for atheistic materialism - which generally entails a positivist worldview which does not have room for objectively true ethical statements. But, for some less materialistic non-theism, not necessarily so. I think an idealist or dualist non-theist could believe in objective ethics without much problem. (But, if one is a non-materialist, why non-theism - why not pan(en)theism for instance?)

    You ask, does the deity choose to follow some independently existing objective standard of goodness? Or is the objective standard of goodness the product of the deity's arbitrary choice as to how to define good? There is a third option: the definition of goodness is part of the essence of the deity, which is a self-necessary being, such that it could not choose to be other than good, or to adopt some different definition of goodness, for being self-necessary it cannot choose to be other than it is.

    I don't think atheists have any necessary difficulty with passing on moral views to their children. Well, my parents are Christian (my father rather nominally, my mother more substantially, yet ultimately of questionable orthodoxy) -- but I don't feel I got from them any coherent moral worldview -- I never felt my parents encouraged moral reflection, or reflection in general -- their genes probably helped though where their actions didn't. My moral worldview I discovered for myself without their help. So, I suspect most atheists don't do a good job of passing on a moral worldview to their children, but on the other hand most Christians don't do a good job either.

    Still, if one wants an objective moral worldview, how does one ground that philosophically? I don't see how non-theistic materialism can do that -- the most logical metaethics for a materialist seems to me to be that favoured by the logical positivists, emotivism -- ethical claims lack literal truth or falsehood, their linguistic function is not to express truth or falsehood, but rather to express approval or disapproval, encouragement or disapprobation. Now, a non-materialist non-theism doesn't have this problem, but I wonder to what extent an idealist or dualist non-theism makes sense. It needn't entail a theism in the classical Christian sense, but what about a more pantheistic or pan(en)theistic or deistic theism?

    The problem is, to say one is a theist or non-theist, one must have a definition of 'God' which one is agreeing or disagreeing with. But the definitions of 'God' are so variable, it is pointless to say one is a theist or non-theist without specifying more precisely what exact idea of 'God' one is agreeing or disagreeing with. And even if one is a non-theist with respect to one idea of 'God', maybe one is in fact a theist with respect to another concept of 'God' one has not yet considered?