Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ethics for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Immoralists (Part IV)



A good place to begin in finding out what kind of ethic one is already doing is the question: why did you become an atheist or agnostic? There are a multitude of possible answers with each the seed of a different way of being in the world.



There is the atheist who gives up the belief in God because it is illogical and who would leave everything else more or less alone. Questions of social justice, equality, and gender would be mostly irrelevant to this type of atheist because this type of atheist is primarily concerned with epistemic issues.


Another type of atheist gives up his belief in God because he wants to indulge his carnal and venal desires. He probably still believes in God but professes disbelief instead. This type is most often encountered in Christian fantasies of the atheist in revolt against God.
A third type can be described as an intellectual hedonist. He objects to God because God is far too often an excuse and reason to stop thinking. The guiding passion of this type is curiosity about the world.


A fourth type rejects God and Christianity in particular because they are deeply offensive. He no longer believes that Christianity is anything but a rationalization and justification of unfairness and inequality. For this type of atheist Christianity isn’t Christian enough. This one finds Christian values to be acceptable but finds fault with the administrative machinery that an organized religion requires.


A fifth type rejects God and Christianity because he finds Christian values and Christianity to be rationalizations for failure in this life. A good example of this type of atheist is Friedrich Nietzsche.


A sixth type rejects Christianity and God because they are an affront to his sense of autonomy. This atheist wants to manage his own affairs for himself. Christianity inevitably relies on (typically) men to speak for God. In claiming to speak for God these men speak only for themselves and their followers.


A seventh type can be imagined as a poor soul who envies the religious for the peace that comes from their faith. The self-loathing of this type comes from internalizing religious values but without a concomitant questioning and interrogation of those values.


An eighth type simply hates dogmatic attitudes. Being able to change your mind when presented with new evidence and arguments is the essence of honesty, integrity, and inquiry. For this one “faith” is just another conviction to be interrogated.


This list is by no means exhaustive. I came up with these eight types in few minutes. There are most certainly other types that have been overlooked. This list shows that the moniker “atheist” covers a great deal and means little more than a individual who rejects belief in God and (probably) the supernatural. Contrary to PZ Meyers  ( Why are you an atheist?, Febuary 2, 2011, and Atheism and the Real search for Meaning -- January 8, 2013)“atheist” as the lowest common denominator means dictionary atheist. Our terminology seems to need revision.


These types are rarely embodied in a pure form in one individual. More commonly individual atheists are mixtures of more than one type, but in a given individual one type will predominate and be the answer most commonly given to the question, “why are you an atheist?”


* * *


It is easy enough to see that each of the type of atheist given above contains a mustard seed of an ethic that can be elaborated and developed. Each of these types of atheist reject God because of values already held dear. This variety of types can be confusing to someone fresh from Christianity. The lack of a clear preferred type makes for indecision as to which to choose. I understand the reasons and rationale for my atheism. Accordingly, I don’t have any use for some types, but that does not imply inferiority. Condemnation would be superfluous. It is not a question of what type of atheist is the best or what an atheist should be, but rather do you recognize yourself in any of the types? Or maybe your type is not listed in the catalog given above.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Ethics for Atheists, Agnostics, and other Immoralists (Pt. III)

Any ethic or religion that includes a set of propositions or uses a text to ground its morality and ethics is for this reason not all-inclusive and universal in its message. To see the truth of this it suffices to examine how the labels of truth and error come to be attached to ideas, propositions, and beliefs. Every judgment that such and such is true or false has its own unique prehistory of thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the mind of the individual making the judgment. The experiences that go into the making of a judgment are unique to each individual. The nuances and subtleties of each experience contribute their unique influences to the eventual judgment of truth or falsity. It may be a necessity of communal life to imagine that the experiences of other people are largely the same as mine. A human being is born into a particular family in particular circumstances. Who would deny that if they were born into a different culture that they would believe differently about their place in the world, or that each family exercises a unique influence over its members? If further proof is needed, consider that  witnesses to an event (a mugging for example) give accounts that differ in details as well as in what is emphasized. Eventually the various accounts are synthesized into one account of the incident. That account will be the “truth” of what happened, and yet it is an account from none of the witnesses.  The mugging is analogous to the propositions and texts used to ground morality. Each individual will approach those texts and propositions with their own unique history. Does this mean that therefore people are unable to communicate with one another?Obviously not. Communal life means giving up the rough edges of one’s character.





Where does this leave ethics? A universal ethic is still possible but at the cost of meaningful content. An ethic that would apply to everyone would have to be so general and abstract that it would be not worth the effort. One dramatic possibility is to declare the death of ethics. But this would apply only to universalist ethics. Ethics can still be developed for individuals and groups of people. Instead of searching and arguing for propositions that every person must follow in order to be “good,” ethics would concern itself with the questions, “How am I to live? What am I to strive for? What are the good things in my life?”



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