Atheism and the difference between consistency and entailment

(redated post originally published here on 20 November 2011)

At Jeff Lowder’s suggestion, I’m re-posting this 2008 post from my own blog here.  Although the referenced blog, The Country Shrink, no longer exists, I have replaced the links to refer to copies of the posts at the Internet Archive.

A Christian rural psychologist has posted on his blog about “some psychological aspects of atheism,” where he claims that:

[Atheists] tend to not be able to understand that their position means “anything goes,” with respect to morality. If there is no God, then there is no objective thing as morality. It’s all subjective… They always find some way to justify the fact that they practice at least some moral principles. Whether they think it’s biologically ingrained through millions of years of evolution or morality is simply “adaptive in allowing the species to survive.” Most often; however, they have never even considered the logical consequences of atheism and morality.

He also engages in some armchair theorizing about atheism being caused by absent fathers, being intolerant, etc., all without any reference to empirical evidence. (And given the recent Pew Forum survey results where one in five self-reported “atheists” say that they believe in God or a higher power, I think any study of atheists needs to make sure that it’s dealing with people who actually know what the word means.)

But the quoted passage is completely off-base. Atheism is a denial of the existence of gods. That entails the falsity of divine command theory as a basis for morality, but not much else. Most philosophers have rejected divine command theory as an adequate basis for morality since Plato wrote the “Euthyphro” and asked the critical question, “is the pious [or right] loved by the gods because it is pious [right], or is it pious [right] because it is loved by the gods”? Either fork of the dilemma leads to bad consequences–if the former, then there must be some other ground for moral rightness than because the gods will it to be so, and so the gods themselves are unnecessary. If the latter, then the gods could make acts that we consider to be clearly immoral into right actions according to whim. The latter seems more consistent with the morality of the Bible, since God is depicted therein as commanding murderous acts including the killing of women and children, but it is simply a “might makes right” philosophy of morality. But I think the former is clearly the right horn of the dilemma to grasp–morality is not something which requires gods.

Now, there are certainly atheist philosophers who have argued that atheism precludes more than the divine command theory. The atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie, in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, argues against morality being objective properties of the world on the basis of their “queerness.” And I think he is probably right at least to the extent that moral properties are not human-independent properties. My view is that there are certain basic values, held by most human beings and evolutionary in origin, essential to social organization and beneficial to our survival and thriving, which objectively entail moral consequences for us, composed as we are and in the environment (physical and social) we find ourselves in.

But my view is not important for confronting the claim of the quoted passage. All atheism means is the denial of the existence of gods. It is not a complete worldview, it is simply a single component in an infinite number of possible consistent worldviews. An atheist can, like J. M. E. McTaggart, believe in reincarnation and immortality. An atheist can believe in the paranormal, in ghosts, in supernatural beings other than gods. An atheist can be a nihilist, a relativist, a utilitarian, a contractarian, an existentialist. An atheist can be a conservative, a liberal, a socialist, an anarchist, a monarchist, a libertarian, a Marxist, or hold any other possible view of political philosophy that doesn’t entail the existence of gods. All of these views are consistent with atheism, meaning simply that no contradiction is produced by the combination of the views.

Amorality and nihilism are consistent with atheism–it is certainly possible for an atheist to hold that there are no moral truths, that there is no difference between right and wrong. But mere consistency is not the same as entailment–it does not follow that if you are an atheist, it logically follows or is necessary to hold such views. Yet that’s what the quoted author is falsely claiming to be the case.

Note that amorality and nihilism are also consistent with theism–and in my opinion, both are possible for theists whichever horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is grasped. If the ground of what is morally right is something independent of the gods that does not exist, even while gods do, then that’s an amoral theism. And if all there is to morality is what the gods will it to be, that makes morality dependent upon the values of the gods–if the gods choose to be amoral or nihilists, then again there’s amoral theism.

The Christian psychologist goes on to write (citing this very blog for the quote):

Now, I have only seen or read about one logically consistent atheist…..Jeffrey Dahmer. There have been philosophers, I know, who have come to this logical conclusion. But I’m talking about someone who logically practiced what he believed.

“If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing…” (1)

So said Dahmer.

The “what’s the point” question is easy to answer–there are clearly consequences for us to our own behavior regardless of any accountability to God. Sane, rational people desire to live good and happy lives, rather than follow the example of Dahmer. Even leaving God out of the picture, where is the slightest appeal in following Dahmer as a model of rational living? I see none.

But the position this psychologist takes opens up an obvious question that he doesn’t notice–God isn’t accountable to anyone. Why should God be good, instead of acting maliciously, callously, and evilly, in the absence of any accountability to anyone? According to this psychologist, the answer should be that God should rationally act as an omnipotent Jeffrey Dahmer. Having no greater God to hold him responsible, he should not be bound to any code of morality, his word should be valueless, and every action based on the whims of the moment without regard to any future consequences.

That should be considered a reductio ad absurdum of his position. Either there are rational reasons to not act like Jeffrey Dahmer independently of being held accountable to a higher being, or God behaves irrationally by not acting like Jeffrey Dahmer. (Or perhaps, given the content of the Old Testament, God does act like Jeffrey Dahmer.)

UPDATE: I’ve engaged in further argument with the psychologist in the comments of his blog, as have others.

UPDATE: After a few back-and-forth exchanges, I don’t think the psychologist means to talk about logical consequences of beliefs. I think probably the best reconstruction of his actual argument is something like this:

1. Human beings find it psychologically necessary to believe in an objective external source of morality. (In order to be happy, function well psychologically, etc.)

2. Atheism doesn’t provide such a source by itself.

3. Those whose worldview is composed entirely of atheism, without augmenting it with some objective external source of morality, have no psychological reasons to act in moral ways.

This is a much more plausible argument. He says something very much like (3), and goes on to say something to the effect that none of these substitutes are sufficient, and his reason seems to be along the lines that people’s choices for these substitutes are arbitrary or that they are not externally imposed. But his reasoning is faulty–the fact that people choose for themselves doesn’t mean that their choices are arbitrary (they can have good reasons), and external imposition seems to be irrelevant. Presumably he would agree that someone who converts to Christianity as an adult can have all of the psychological benefits he’s claiming for theism. And what of the thousands of other religions, sects, and interpretations that can be acquired from one’s parents or others? His argument doesn’t have any way of singling out Christianity (or any particular version thereof) as special in this regard. It seems to me that it really comes down to an argument about the social and psychological benefits of adopting the beliefs of one’s culture that most people accept–though I’m sure he doesn’t want to accept the cultural relativism that seems to me to be implied by his position.

UPDATE: The “Country Shrink” has resorted to “let’s agree to disagree” without even attempting to respond to the criticism of his claim that morality requires theism, nor has he responded to my attempted reformulation. Instead, he has asked whether my impressions of atheists differ from him–claiming the moral high ground, intellectual superiority, etc., to which I responded that I see that as most prevalent among atheists who were previously evangelical Christians, and that he’s likely attributing causes to the wrong place. I don’t think it’s caused by atheism as much as by reaction to Christianity.

UPDATE (July 6, 2008): The “Country Shrink” has made a followup post in which he takes a stab of sorts at addressing some of the philosophical arguments I made, but mostly by engaging in argument from ignorance and attempting to shift the burden of proof to me, even though he is the one maintaining that it is impossible for there to be any objective meta-ethical framework without gods. He also asserts (rather than argues) that incompatibilism is the correct position in the free will debate and that consciousness cannot be explained naturalistically. I don’t discern any actual arguments for either of those positions other than failure of imagination.