I’m not only new but a Briish atheist.
I am now going to put to you an email that I sent to Sam Harris but obviously he is unable to answer all his emails.
See What you think and please bare with me
By the way Russell and Stephen and Tookey are fellow atheists who have engaged in the debate.
I am just a British Atheist and a nobody from the point of view of people you are used to dealing with. I very much appreciate what you have done in the struggle against theism but I have however seen both yourself and Richard Dawkins on You Tube experience difficulty on the subject of morality especially with William Lane-Craig. I think this is one of the most vital questions for atheism and is one of our real weaknesses. I have not read your book `The Moral Landscape’ yet but I have read your summary on your website. I have just started an internet discussion in Britain on this subject and I would very much like your comments.
I will try and put the problem simply
1 The theist grounds morality in the existence of God as the supreme arbiter
2 You attempt to ground morality in the universe and the suffering or not of sentient beings.
3 I would ground morality in the Human Race and our nature and evolution.
This may sound simple but the implications are huge and getting in wrong in my view may cause atheists to be `barking up the wrong tree’ or looking in the wrong place. What follows is an edited version of my thoughts and I really hope you will bare with me on the length.
What is Atheist Morality?
Before we discuss this, it may be prudent to look at the conventional model of what has historically been the foundation of human ethics and morality - that is Theist largely Christian morality in this country (UK). This is based on a very solidly simple proposition. It appears that its solid simplicity is the reason why the atheist narrative has run into such difficulties confronting it. That is that God created the universe and mankind and ever since Adam and Eve man has been incapable of determining what is right or wrong, good or evil without divine guidance in the form of revelations. More than this, not only is God the embodiment of ultimate goodness but he has a counterpart in the form of a lesser deity named Satan who is the embodiment of ultimate evil. God is not alone.
Of course mankind being child-like or sheep like (whichever one prefers) is inherently incapable of an independent path and therefore must necessarily be influenced by Satan - to the dark side, if you will, or to God to the light. Therefore we can infer that for the theist both goodness and evil come from outside the human condition and has existed long before we were even placed upon this earth. This is what William Lane-Craig the theist ideolgue calls `objective morality’. By Objective he means independent of the human race - in fact as independent from us as the mountains the sun and the stars. Given world history over the last two millennia, at first glace it may appear that this narrative has some evidential merit most recently incarnated by Hitler, Stalin, two world wars and a list too long to cite just in the last century alone, and things aren’t looking much better in this one.
So that is what they say, but what do we say? Where do we begin to find an alternative grounding? As grounded it has to be. Our difficulty is not that we don’t know that our morality is better than theirs but the question is why? It has to be based on something more than our individual thoughts and opinions because Stalin and Pol Pot also had individual thoughts and opinions. We can argue as does Russell20 that ` However I will take issue with the Stalin and Mao link with atheism and atheists in general. As what seperates us from them is that they were communists first and only de-facto atheists second.’ However the theist could also argue in line with Stephen’s observation that `Firstly, there have been many religious dictators guilty of mass murder and human rights violations. Hitler a catholic, as was Franco and Pinochet, the latter two may not have murdered as many but they still ran a state by fear and torture’ In other words, the fact that they were theists could also be a secondary matter as they were first and foremost fascists. We cannot get away with saying that we are free thinkers and nice human beings because there are good atheists and bad atheists.
There have been attempts by none theists over the years to answer this question, Utilitarianism, Humanism, Marxism which have all found their points of departure from the human being whether that be human thought or human action whether collective or individual. For all the qualities and insights of these ideologies they have all failed to escape the shackles of the subjectivity in the individual or the objectivity of the collective.
Another angle to this, as we are atheists is to recognise the centrality of science in this question and I think Darwinian evolution by natural selection must play a crucial role in this puzzle along side human thought and action. To start from basics we can ask what is the purpose of any species that has ever evolved on the earth? Given we are one. To reduce the answer to its essence we can say the purpose of any species is its survival, reproduction and wellbeing. This applies to any living thing from bacteria onwards and there is no reason why this should not apply to us, just because we can be separated from the rest of the animal world by our super-intelligence and super-capabilities. So how do all these things fit together?
As I have said in previous posts there is such a thing as good and evil, right and wrong but these concepts find their origin within our species and exist nowhere else but within our species. This will remain the case until super-intelligent life is found elsewhere in the universe. We as atheists should know this because we know that good and evil exists but we also know that man created god not the other way around. We also know that there are now good or evil animnals and this does not apply to nature or the universe as such. I would contend that whatever actions (taken by humans) aid our primeval instincts of survival, replication and wellbeing for all humans are good and moral and those that are detrimental to these instincts are evil and immoral - this applies both on a societal/global and an individual level. All that has been said in the debate `morality atheism’s weakness’ fits into this narrative one way or the other. I think that this is so absolutely true that almost all humans understand this to the extent that when we do evil deeds we know that we have done evil and have made a conscious choice to do so.
Tookey2k stated that `Morality can NEVER be an absolute commodity. What is good today could very well be bad tomorrow’ Absolutely correct. Morality of course depends on our stage of historical development and the contemporary challenges we are faced with as a species. The issue of global warming is a good example of a situation that was not an issue two hundred years ago but is very much an issue today in terms of our survival replication and wellbeing for the future. I would say that those who purposefully ignore it or fight against the control of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere are acting in an immoral way.
There are many more examples of this, nuclear weapons world poverty, human rights etc but the correct moral answer to these issues must be viewed via the prism of our prospects for survival, reproduction and wellbeing as a species as a whole.
Although I am of the view that morality is not static we should also bare in mind the fact that are some absolutes that humanity has `uncovered’ through our history and development. I would categorise these absolutes in the same way that science has demonstrated absolute truths such as the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around - or that evolution is a fact and creationism is a fiction.
Many of the things that we take for granted today have in fact been `uncovered’ by way of struggle and reason. Slavery for example is wrong today as it has always been wrong (even in ancient Rome). Racism is wrong but this moral understanding was only uncovered in the 20th Century (through struggle) although it has always been wrong. Homophobia is wrong but the battle still rages on this front (especially with the theists) but need I say, it has always been wrong. Likewise the equality of women which still rages in many parts of the theist world - I could go on.
Stephen says `We can learn our morality by life experience and as man is basically a social animal we have a natural sense of community and justice. Therefore we should come up with our own moral obligations that are better than those of an organisation that has preset ideals dating back to the bronze age.’
Stephen is of course correct that our underlying morality dates from the dawn of our species on the African Savannah that in order to survive it was not advantageous to harm our collective in any way. that children should be protected and nurtured, (as they should be taught to think today) that we should cooperate in hunts and gathering food and acquiring shelter, that we