[LMB] Atheism and ethics

Rachel anglerfish at gmail.com
Mon Sep 12 03:02:27 BST 2011

> Mitch Miller wrote
> Within a few miles of my home there are tens of thousands of young men (and with increasing
> frequency, young women also) who believe in nothing but themselves.  They care for nothing
> except themselves, and sometimes their gang.  If they see you are wearing a pair of shoes they
> want or driving a car they like, they will beat you viciously or kill you to take them.  Or sometimes
> just because they feel like it.  They do not fear punishment because there is little chance they
> will be caught, and even if they are, prison is a lark to them.

(If you're in America) I'd guess that most of those young people would
self-identify as Christian and claim a belief in god. Not because
their behaviour is at all related to Christianity, but because people
who behave that way seem most often to be people who have never put
any time into even thinking about morality, and people who don't put
any time into thinking tend to default to the majority opinion. As a
contrast, 95% of the people that I interact with at work from day to
day are atheists and they are all highly moral, kind, thoughtful,
(highly educated and so most likely of high SES background) people.
The very situation of atheists currently being a minority will often
mean that any atheist you meet will have thought, struggled with, and
read extensively on questions of religion and morality before coming
to their beliefs because they had to actively reject the belief system
that everyone around them holds. On the other hand, without much
thought people are naturally very good at rationalizing their
behaviour and seeing their actions in the best life--how many of the
young criminals you describe expect to go to heaven? Probably many. It
is my understanding that in certain types of Christianity all that is
required for a happy afterlife is repentance, and so if you hold that
belief you could make the argument that you are free to do whatever
you want in this life because it doesn't matter so long as you repent
for a happy eternity.

Is morality a function of religion at all, or is it a function of education?

> Perhaps I'm philosophy-disabled, but please believe me that I'm not trying to offend
> you, but am really trying to understand you, when I ask you to explain to me
> why, under your view of the world, they should act differently, because I don't see it.

Responses will differ. I behave morally because I believe in an ideal
world that I want to live in, and that I want for my children, and to
bring that world about I need to behave in ways that are congruent
with it. My SO just said that he behaves morally because he feels the
responsibility that comes with being free, having empathy, and being
able to look to the future. My biologist friend says, "I don't punch
people in the face because by engaging in an action I am saying to
those around me that I find that action acceptable behaviour.
Considering I don't wish to be punched in the face, and because I have
evolved to sometimes experience empathy, I generally abstain from that

I honestly don't know what I'd recommend in books on atheism. The old
'catch more flies with honey than vinegar' doesn't seem to apply to
any of the recent popular books. Dawkins, for example, is great on
biology (Selfish Gene is definitely worth reading), but when he writes
on atheism I find him a bit. . . supercilious.

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