Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Virtuous atheists and divinely restrained sociopaths

Over on Adam Felber's Fanatical Apathy a discussion of religion and politics has broken out in the wake of Katherine Harris's interview in the Florida Baptist Witness. The discussion brought to mind first the recent "Letter to Timothy" dismissal of a Sunday School teacher by members of the American Taliban in that hotbed of fundamentalist fervor known as Watertown, New York. It also reminded me of a conversation I had with a recently born-again fellow student at the University of Scranton some 20 years ago (yes, those of you who went to college with me, it was Dave F.) in which he maintained that Fear of the Lord was the only thing that kept society from dissolving into chaos, violence, and lawlessness, since it was only because of this fear that people restrained themselves from acting out their fervent desires to rape, pillage, and murder. (I never really felt comfortable around him after that, having gotten a glimpse into his heart of hearts.)

Anyway, here's my contribution to the discussion:

Didn’t Katherine Harris get the memo about the Letter to Timothy? She should just shut the hell up. Women, I tell ya.

I’ve actually had devout Christians argue with me that, in the absence of God, there is no such thing as morality or ethics. They have a spooky, sociopathic attitude: If it weren’t for the Big Guy with the beard watching me, oh, the things I would do… In that sense, Christians who act only out of fear of divine reprisal are inherently less virtuous than non-believers who act out of a basic preference for good actions over evil actions. Add to that the fact that most Christians believe that upon accepting Christ they have an irrevocable Get Into Heaven card for the rest of their lives, and they’re truly a scary bunch that deserves to be watched closely. (Catholics, at least, believe that you have to confess your sins and perform penance to get absolution from sin.)

I’ll take a virtuous atheist over a divinely restrained sociopath any day.

Go on over and add your voice to the conversation. But be warned: we're a feisty, passionate bunch over there. Be sure to bring your "A" game.


Anonymous said...

The argument is more subtle than "the big guy is watching me, so I behave."

Without an independent source of morality, that is, not man made, it becomes philosophically very difficult to defend general ethical principles. In fact, reason itself becomes hard to defend.

See Gorgias by Plato: One guy is arguing that justice is the advantage of the stronger, and Socrates is reduced to making emotional arguments and threatening hell to his opponents.

You may say, well, rape is always wrong, and I'd of course agree with you. But defending it philosophically is not a walk in the park. You could argue that one's pleasure cancels out the other's pain, leaving a utilitarian net of zero for the transaction, or even a positive if the rapist enjoys more than the victim is harmed; whereas a refusal to rape results in discomfort for the rapist, and neither pain nor pleasure for the rape "victim," resulting in a societal net negative for the non-event.

And trust me, people will start making these kinds of utilitarian, communal arguments. And because the rationalists have long since lost the argument in a post-Kantian world, you have nothing to stand on other than "Well I feel it's wrong" at which point someone says, "Well, I feel it's right."

But with an appeal to natural, universal conscience, ordained by God, you sidestep all that bullshit.

As far as "virtuous atheists," well, yes, many follow the dictates of their conscience, which as Catholics, we believe is God-given so that natural law is written on every human heart. Thus, their virtue is not in their lack of belief, but in their faithful behaviorial adherence to the word of God, despite their lack of intellectual adherence.

Atheists, because they don't believe in God, are often keenly aware of the contingency of ethics, and thus may develop in response a strong probity. Or not.

Bill @ IB

Super G said...

It seems that from a biological perspective it is pretty easy to make a case that ethical behavior (particularly with your family and immediate tribe/neighborhood/country) is an evolved trait common to most human beings (except those with some kind of genetic defect). Ants are the most successful creature of all in terms of numbers and most of them don't have a chance of reproducing.

So humans may have some natural tendency to care about and respect those around them (I am happy to accept that God has given it to everyone). An evolutionary argument, however, can also easily explain why people willingly kill and destroy the "enemy" that is not part of their family, neighborhood/tribe/nation (which can be done ethically in only very narrow settings of self defense if at all).

In general, I think these kind of arguments are used as a hypothetical argument to prejudice against athiests more than anything else. Like "they'll do anything because they don't believe in God." Though it may be that athiests have an advantage in that any of their transgressions appear less hypocritical than one who professes to believe in God.

It seems useful to judge people on their actions rather than their professed beliefs. Their actions may better represent their beliefs or, for other reasons, they may not be able to bring their actions in line with their beliefs. We're not God and outside of how we might change our actions, our judgements about each others beliefs don't serve a higher purpose.

It ends up that a sociopath is a sociopath and ethical behaviour doesn't belong to any one group (political or religious) but is an individual characteristic.

May be all of this is part of the reason B. Franklin altered Jefferson's text to read "these truths are self evident."

Betz said...

I am not as eloquent as super G but his thoughts seem to reflect the way I feel on the subject.

Thank you for wording it for me G. :)