I was recently told by a Christian that I, being an atheist, am intrinsically immoral, having nothing on which to base my morality. I think with the Pope’s recent visit to our fair shores, this is a great statement for me to sink my teeth into. For all you Christians who think atheists lack a moral compass, I’ve got the real good news: belief in an imaginary father-figure is not necessary to define your morals, and, in fact, religious moral authority often prevents tolerance of other systems of morality.
This theory hinges on a few concepts I’ll discuss: moral relativism, the subjective nature of human life, and the flawed philosophy of Plato.
The Problem with Plato
Let’s start with the groundwork. For those of you unfamiliar with Platonic idealism, here’s the real short version: Plato believed that there was an objective reality out there, and truth is an accurate representation of this objective reality. Now, this sounds good – it’s easy to digest, and wraps everything up in a happy black and white picture. If reality is objective, then good is good, bad is bad, and ugly is ugly.
There are, however, some serious problems with Plato. Richard Rorty, a postmodern philosopher, argues in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity that big-T Truth is a problem because man interprets everything through language. Don’t buy it? How are your thoughts organized? BINGO! Language. Language is seen by Rorty as nothing but a series of metaphors; the word tree is not, in fact, a tree, but merely a verbal image representing a tree. He thus comes to the conclusion that language must be subjective, since we all have slightly differing interpretations of these metaphors. You may see an oak tree, while I envision a pine tree, for instance. Rorty and other postmodernists believe, rather than in Truth, in truths. To the postmodern philosophers, there is no objective reality – or, rather, mankind can never find objective reality because we are limited by the subjectivity of the language with which we interpret the world. This leads to some interesting concepts regarding morality…
Moral relativism is a concept espoused by existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who believed a human being’s morals are subjective and based on cultural and societal norms rather than some objective morality given to us by God. This hinges on the above-expressed idea that reality itself is subjective, of course. Moral relativists often argue that someone’s morality is only applicable within their own culture, and can’t be applied to other, conflicting cultures. There are some problems with this theory as well; moral relativism implies that we can each create our own morals, and since we each create our own moral code, no one is immoral. I tend to subscribe to a more practical view: morals are socially constructed. Individual cultures come to a consensus of what is considered immoral.
“So what the heck is your point, Riley?” you might be asking. My point is, atheists are perfectly able to be moral, righteous individuals. If morals are relative to the culture, my morality is based on the same Western ideals as the morality of any Christian. The idea that an atheist cannot be moral is based on a concept I just don’t buy into: that we have some Truth handed down to us by a nonexistent God.
Kavan pointed out in an earlier article that the Ten Commandments are missing some very important rules; for instance, rape is wrong, despite not being in the Ten Commandments. I think we can all agree that a rapist is not a moral individual; where does this come from, if the Bible does not command it as part of your moral foundation? It’s because rape is damaging to society, and thus goes against our collective, cultural moral foundation.
Now here’s the leap: atheism and moral relativism actually breed more tolerance than mainstream, Christian ideology. Christians’ belief that morals and Truth are handed down by God (not any god, but their God), has led many (not all) Christians to believe those of other belief systems are wrong, going to hell, and generally bad and immoral people. Because I do not follow the Word of God, I must be an immoral person. Worse than individual persecution, religious morality breeds systemic intolerance.
Ex.:The Bible says in Leviticus 20:13, “And if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” There are vast armies of Christians who argue that this is the way we actually ought to treat homosexuality. Because their religion is a system of rules given to them by a divine, infallible Creator, His words make it okay to persecute and even put to death those who go against His divine morality.
Moral relativism and a belief that the world itself is subjective allows one to gain a better appreciation for why other cultures do the things they do, and allows for a more tolerant view of them. That being said, this problem is not unique to Christianity – this kind of superiority complex is pervasive in almost all organized religions. Each one thinks they have the Ultimate Truth, and the others are all wrong.
Not to sound too much like a Beatles song, but imagine if people worldwide accepted the notion that morality is a societal invention. Since it is no longer something given to us by some infallible source, and is, in fact, a creation of mankind, the other religions of the world are no longer immoral and wrong. They’ve just got a different view of the truth. After all, they’re all shooting for the same target, right? “Do unto others…”