A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Is Atheism Dishonest?


No. Next question, please?

If only it were that simple. Bruce Walker, in his article Militant Atheism and Mendacity (subtitle: How the rise of atheism is destroying truth) warrants – although doesn’t necessarily deserve – a more detailed response.

The hidden horror of atheism is a greater loss than just the grave which faces us all, and the loss of God involves a loss greater than just chastity, charity and security. The loss of God involves the loss of the possibility of truth. Why? If there are no absolute objective moral virtues, then honesty is not an absolute moral virtue. The Judeo-Christian tradition, what I have sometimes simply called “The Great Faith,” demands the absolute moral virtue of honesty, and it shows this demand it ways that surprise unbelievers.

This is, essentially, the Argument from Morality, which has been well and truly refuted on many occasions. For example, Ebon Musings’ article Unmoved Mover, shows the logical inconsistency of divine moral absolutes.

In fact, it could well be argued that atheism is a better foundation of objective morality than theism. The reason for this is that to postulate, as theists do, that a being is the ultimate source of morality suffers from the Euthyphro dilemma: does God approve of something because it is good, or is it good because God approves of it? If the former is the case, then there is an objective standard of morality outside of God, and we can simply bypass God and appeal to this standard directly. But if the latter is the case, then good and evil would be entirely determined by God’s whims, and there would be no genuine objective morality, and thus no moral order, at all. In this respect, the moral argument is self-defeating.

We atheists are honest because we value the happiness of human beings, and seek to alleviate their suffering. Do I think we should always tell the absolute, complete truth, regardless of the circumstances? No. I think we should seek and disseminate the truth as widely and strongly as possible, while simultaneously striving to maximise net human happiness, and minimise net human suffering. In short, I think white lies are not only sometimes acceptable, they are often morally preferable.

If my friend asks me if I like her new dress, which she is visibly euphoric about, and I don’t happen to like it, I achieve nothing by telling her so. If she is happy with it, that is all that matters. Why hurt her feelings? Why make her doubt her own choice? Why make her self-conscious? Perhaps she values my opinion, and that’s why she asked for it. Maybe, maybe not, but either way, I would still rather spare her feelings. She certainly values my opinion on important issues and questions, such is the nature of friendship. Accordingly, if she asks for my opinion on how to handle a problem with a relationship, or whether she should quit her job because her boss is harassing her, I will give her my honest opinion whether I think she will like it or not. The difference, is that on important issues I am not contributing to her long term, overall happiness by lying to her in order to spare her feelings. On something trivial, I am. I would rather she wears something that she likes than something that I like, so I will put on a smile and express false approval. I will lose no sleep, in fact I will slumber peacefully knowing that I made the correct, moral decision. Some might say that Christianity teaches this interpretation of the 9th Commandment, but to my knowledge, this is not supported in any part of the Bible.

This does not, however, mean that we should turn a blind eye to bland, religious platitudes designed to comfort its believers in difficult times. Here, there most certainly is something to be achieved by encouraging the search for, and acceptance of the difficult truth.

For example, take the afterlife. I have already written about why I think belief in an afterlife is, or at the very least can be, a bad thing.

My friend is not going to suffer any harm to herself, or cause it to anyone else as a result of believing, incorrectly, that I like her dress. She will not lose any time, money, energy or emotional investment as a consequence of believing my white lie. In fact, her life continues in exactly the same way it would have done if I’d told her the truth, except that her pride has not been unnecessarily wounded.

With a belief in an afterlife, this is not the case. A person who believes in an after life may not value his mortal, human life as highly as he should. He may see it as a mere stepping stone to some form of eternal bliss. Perhaps he is right, but if he is not, he is compromising his happiness on Earth.

There are other circumstances where dishonesty is not only acceptable, but noble. A prisoner of war being interrogated may jeopardise the lives of his fellow countrymen by telling the truth. Another example, is that if someone were to ask you an inappropriate personal question, the answer of which they had absolutely no right to know and would be implied by a refusal to answer, you are well entitled to lie, in my opinion. What harm have you done by depriving a nosy person of information they have no basis to demand?

Of course, I’m not arguing that atheists only ever lie when it is the right thing to do. We are human beings, and we make mistakes. We have selfish impulses, and moments of brief irrationality and poor judgement. In this sense, we are no different from anyone else. We accept our fallibility, but strive to better ourselves. All things being equal, we are as generally honest as theists.

The real irony is that we are not honest in spite of being atheists, we are atheists because we value the truth, above all else. Unlike the adherent of any religion, we have no arbitrary position to defend. We have no possible ulterior motive to deceive either ourselves, or anyone else about our beliefs. We can simply follow the evidence, without prejudice, without bias and without religious baggage, and find ourselves happy wherever it takes us. We are atheists because we would not just accept what we were told, without questioning it. We hold fast to the principle of seeking and accepting the truth, no matter how it makes us feel.

Walker actually plays into our hands. He offers some example of honesty with in Christianity that apparently “surprise unbelievers”.

Likewise, the Church Fathers did not try to reconcile inconsistencies in the Gospel. Quite the contrary, the different versions of the ministry of Jesus are deliberately kept in. Things hard to grasp and harder to explain are left in the Gospels. Did Jesus have siblings? Why does He pray to His Father on the Cross, like an abandoned child? These very difficulties, like the difficulties of the prophets or the anomalies of Genesis have been kept for thousands of years precisely because serious Jews and serious Christians believe in honesty and believe that honesty is the path to truth and to God.

Contrary to what Walker may think, the glaring inconsistencies, both within and between the Gospels, have not escaped our attention. In fact, it is one of the reasons we are atheists. He sees the contradictions in the scriptures, and commends Christianity for its honesty. I see the same contradictions, and interpret them as evidence that the Bible is flawed, and therefore cannot be divinely inspired as is claimed. We are then left with an historical source like any other, and as its accounts were not recorded as history, its value to us in establishing the facts is questionable, to say the least.

Walker’s piece is laden with hypocrisy, but this example was particularly glaring.

The consequence is that a marketplace of ideas filled with atheists quickly produces a lot of counterfeit intellectual currency. Why be even-handed in research if you know that you are right and there is no God to worry about? Indeed, why worry about even being right? If you fancy a theory, fabricate findings to “prove” it and then move on (much like Margaret Mead did when she invented findings about Samoa, because it described a reality she preferred.)

What I found staggering about this passage, is that after using ‘even-handed’ research as an example, he offers no source for his claim about Margaret Mead. In fact, there is not a single source link in the entire article, and I counted approximately eight or nine points at which one would have been at least appropriate. (Incidentally, you can read about Margaret Mead here. As you will see, there is controversy to this day over her findings in Samoa, but the accusation Walker throws at Mead has been levelled just as strongly, probably with more evidence, at her staunchest critic, Derek Freeman.)

Walker’s claims amount to nothing more than yet another attempt to discredit atheism through the perpetuation of a bitter, false stereotype. If only he had practised a little ‘even handed research’ of his own, he may have contributed a little to the truth himself. Fundamentalist theism is founded in faith, wishful thinking, dogma, delusion and insulation from outside criticism. All of these traits transgress against the very ideals of truth and honesty. Before Mr Walker can preach about dishonesty to atheists, perhaps a dose of candour in his own heart is due.

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou cans’t not be false to any man. (Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Act I, scene iii, lines 78-80)

Advertisements

17 Responses to “Is Atheism Dishonest?”

  1. Well written. That final quote is a lovely thump to the final nail in the coffin for that idea.

    Theists are crazy sometimes. Actually, to be fair I should write “fundamentalists are crazy sometimes”, but that makes my statement look obvious. Still, the notion that atheists lack morality goes beyond fundamentalists, so thanks for the clear rebuttal.

  2. “She will not lose any time, money, energy or emotional investment as a consequence of believing my white lie.”

    Perhaps…unless she goes out and buys 4 more just like it! 🙂

    “Contrary to what Walker may think, the glaring inconsistencies, both within and between the Gospels, have not escaped our attention. In fact, it is one of the reasons we are atheists.”

    Why should Christian beliefs make anyone an atheist? This is what gets me about your statement; it comes from a dislike of Chrisitianity, but how is that proof that there is NO God?

    “We atheists are honest because we value the happiness of human beings, and seek to alleviate their suffering.”

    Since when is a human’s happiness a measure of Truth? If your friend was “happy” believing in God, wouldn’t you be working against it by trying to prove to her He doesn’t exist?

  3. “With a belief in an afterlife, this is not the case. A person who believes in an after life may not value his mortal, human life as highly as he should. He may see it as a mere stepping stone to some form of eternal bliss. ”

    Too true. Many Xians lie by saying that it has no impact. I used to regard my life “down here” as a sort of Take-One in a never ending drama (forgive me, I’m right near Hollywood) with the finale being shot in Heaven for all eternity. I didn’t even fear for my own life in the face of armed muggers! I’m going to be a little open here and say that I feel a lot less invincible, physically, now that I know that this life is all I get.

    I have lied in response to a nosy question with the exact same reasoning you use. I figure nosy people deserve to be lied to.

    Why be even-handed in research if you know that you are right

    Exactly! This explains so much about literalist CREATIONISTS! How blind can this guy be?!?

    There will always be moral dilemmas. For example take the usual, dire scenario: Your in NAZI occupied territory, you’ve got Anne Frank and friends in your attic. You get asked by the army if you are hiding Jews.
    Do you tell the truth because lying is always wrong?
    Believe it or not, I received a resounding “yes” from a Xian friend. Most Xians would not answer this way, but that just exposes the dilemma. Xians claim that morality as expressed by the 10 commandments (fixed-rules) is ABSOLUTE, but in practice, they employ the same “situational ethics” that they claim is moral relativism.

  4. @ Liza.

    We meet again! 😉

    Why should Christian beliefs make anyone an atheist? This is what gets me about your statement; it comes from a dislike of Chrisitianity, but how is that proof that there is NO God?

    Your question is answered within the same paragraph from which you quoted.

    I see the same contradictions, and interpret them as evidence that the Bible is flawed, and therefore cannot be divinely inspired as is claimed.

    Christianity claims that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Inconsistencies and contradictions show that it cannot be perfect or inerrant. Therefore, the claim that the Bible is the word of God is false. As nearly every other claim that Christianity makes stems from the claim that the Bible is the perfect word of God, virtually all Christian claims, including the divinity of Christ are questionable at best. This is why I reject Christianity. It has nothing to do with “disliking” Christianity. Whether I like a claim or not is relevant. Whether it is true or false is all that matters to me.

    Since when is a human’s happiness a measure of Truth?

    In general, people don’t like being lied to. If someone lies to you, it makes it difficult to trust them. If you can’t trust people, you can’t form close relationships. If you can’t have relationships, it’s very difficult, if not impossible to be happy. I’d say, broadly speaking, truth and happiness go hand in hand.

    If your friend was “happy” believing in God, wouldn’t you be working against it by trying to prove to her He doesn’t exist?

    If anyone is happy believing in God, I am quite content to leave them to it as long as they are not doing anyone else any harm. It’s their business. If a discussion comes up, however, I will state my views clearly, whether they like it or not. Even though they may be happy believing in God, I may happen to believe that they would be even happier not believing in God, but that would just be my opinion. I don’t stand on street corners handing out leaflets. I don’t try to talk to strangers on the bus. I write this blog, and people are free to read it or choose not to. I don’t force my views upon anyone. I don’t think we can “prove” that God doesn’t exist, but in the course of any debate, if I argue against the existence of God, it is because it is what I have come to believe after evaluating the evidence the best I can. I am honest about my beliefs.

  5. Not everyone is maximally happy believeing in god. Some have been brainwashed into believing in a god that they fear. Many xians feel that their eternal souls are threatened with damnation in Hell, despite their best efforts to adhere to scripture. And, of course, the best Xian can still have close ties to unbelievers who they believe will burn in Hell for eternity after death. This is also, not such a happy state.
    In general, fundamentalism diminishes happiness compared to what could be experienced.

    It closes off or limits realtionships with others based on their deviation fom Xian dogma.
    It limits one intellectually by cutting out a lot of science and philosophy that is incongruent with the Bible.
    It definitely limits people culturally by serving as an internal censor, preventing them from enjoying art and culture that would be subversive. The same holds true for one’s own imagination.
    In economics, these would be termed “opportunity costs,” (as opposed to “accounting costs”) since these things cause one to miss out on a lot of goods, while not causing any kind of measurable loss. And that is especially pernicious.

  6. Polly said:

    In economics, these would be termed “opportunity costs,” (as opposed to “accounting costs”) since these things cause one to miss out on a lot of goods, while not causing any kind of measurable loss. And that is especially pernicious.

    Thank you for that brilliantly succint way of putting an important, often over-looked point. I’ve noted it, and I will be sure to use that in the future, and will be equally sure to credit you when I do. 🙂

  7. “I see the same contradictions, and interpret them as evidence that the Bible is flawed, and therefore cannot be divinely inspired as is claimed.”

    I still don’t see how this leads to the conclusion that there is NO God in the atheist mind. It ‘s almost as if you’re saying that it’s either Chrisitanity or nothing. From my point of view, as a Christian, I find that interesting. Why does a rejection of, or a distaste for, Christianity lead to the rejection of ALL belief?

  8. @ Liza,

    I still don’t see how this leads to the conclusion that there is NO God in the atheist mind. It ’s almost as if you’re saying that it’s either Chrisitanity or nothing. From my point of view, as a Christian, I find that interesting. Why does a rejection of, or a distaste for, Christianity lead to the rejection of ALL belief?

    It’s a fair question. Perhaps I could have made myself a bit clearer.

    The reasoning I use with the inerrancy of the Bible does not lead me to reject all gods, only the Judeo-Christian god. To answer your question, a rejection of Christianity does not lead to the rejection of all religious belief. I am so used to debating with Christians, and therefore dealing with the Christian god, that I sometimes forget to make that clear. I apologise for the ambiguity, and hope that I’ve cleared it up.

    The reasons that I reject all other gods are the same as the reasons I reject the Christian god – a complete lack of credible evidence. I think it was Richard Dawkins who said (if I’m wrong, someone please correct me) “when you understand why you reject all other gods, you’ll understand why I reject yours. You reject all gods except one, and I just go one step further and reject them all” (roughly paraphrased).

    By all means reply, but I’d like to stay somewhere within a country mile of the original topic, which was “Is Atheism Dishonest?”.

  9. @Tobe: Please feel free, the credit is unnecessary and thanks for the kind words.:)

    @Liza: The big tradition most of us are familiar with here in “the West” is the Xian one. Many atheists are former Xians (like me). But, the arguments against the existence of the Christian god (a morally good and omnipotent god) can extend to most conceptions of theism. (In the case of an indifferent, deistic god, the argument becomes irrelevant.)

    Anyone positing a “good” god has to answer the Problem of Evil.
    Incidentally, anyone positing an evil god has to answer the Problem of good.

    Anyone positing an all knowing, all powerful god who wants his creation to know him must answer why he remains hidden. Whether theists believe he’s hiding or not, there are certainly enough atheists out there to make the argument he’s not making his presence sufficiently known.

    Anyone who thinks this god has clear commands and intentions for humanity has to explain why there are so many mutually exclusive ideas about what he wants. Is he schizophrenic? Does he want different things from different people(e.g. Levitical laws for only the Jews?) Then why not be clear and save us all the trouble of Jihadis, inquisitors, and crusaders?

    Anyone positing a supernatural plane at all needs to provide some EVIDENCE. So far, none has been forthcoming. Doesn’t it seem unreasonable to make wild and unproven assertions and then expect everyone to make a mad dash to disprove those assertions? REALLY, I think theists are taking advantage of atheists’ better natures. WE HAVE THE RATIONAL, DEFAULT POSITION. It’s beholden on y’all to make your case.
    Evidence from supernatural occurences are routinely debunked in the present day. Referring back to a superstitious culture’s writings 2,000 years ago is hardly credible evidence.

    The only thing special about Xianity is that it’s ubiquitous, so it makes for a nice, big target. Personal “taste” has nothing to do with it.

  10. Small quibble: there is some confusion of moral non-relativism with moral absolutism in your post (and much more of it in Walker’s article). Moral non-relativism is the position that what is morally right and wrong is not dependent on anybody’s opinion. Walker states that this position is incompatible with atheism without giving a real reason. You go on to defend us, however, from the accusation that atheism results in a lack of absolute moral codes with rules such as ‘never ever tell a lie’ by saying that moral decisions demand that one take context into account. I agree. So would Jesus (see Matthew 12:1-12). Good show.

    This is not what Walker is saying, however. He is saying that, to give a hackneyed example, atheists have no objective basis for saying that Hitler and the Nazis were bad, because without God what’s moral is simply a matter of opinion. This is, of course, total bullshit, but to be shown as such we need to posit an objective basis for morality independant of God. Something like: “human beings have needs such as social interaction, self-actualization and love, and certain moral codes objectively meet these needs better than others”.

    Otherwise, it’s an excellent post. Kudos.

  11. @ Alex.

    I really can’t argue with any of that. I did sort of try to cover the objective basis issue with this bit:

    We atheists are honest because we value the happiness of human beings, and seek to alleviate their suffering.

    I was trying to say that our objective basis for morality is to increase happiness and decrease suffering, but reading it back, it’s not really clear enough. Thanks for the kudos, and criticism duly accepted. 🙂

  12. Nice work, Toby – this kind of insulting smear needs to be knocked down whenever it pops up, and you’re just the person to do it. If anyone could be said to be dishonest, it would have to be apologists like Walker, who assert – without a shred of evidence and in contravention to much evidence we do have – that atheists do not desire to tell the truth.

    Needless to say, I’m really tired of being told I have no morals because I’m an atheist, and I think apologists have to resort to this disgusting lie because they’d be up the creek without a paddle if they had to argue against what we real atheists actually say and believe.

  13. I wanted to respond better, earlier…but I had some rugrats that needed wrangling.

    Is Atheism dishonest?

    After reading Walker’s own post, I realized that it wasn’t entirely what I thought it was going to be. He goes on about atheists and morals and what-not, but that is of no interest of me….at least not in this particular conversation.

    On a different variation of a similar theme, I do sometimes wonder if there is a certain sort of intellectual dishonesty that creeps into atheism.

    By that, I mean to say that often some of the arguments that are used by atheists to deny the existence of God, are just as effective when used against atheism. As Christians we are constantly reminded about the Inquisition, Crusades, etc. as proof that our religion is dangerous and harmful, yet by that token atheism is just as dangerous, if not more so. Stalin, Pol Pot, and other atheistic regimes have piled the bodies high, reaching to millions and millions of casualties. So, why in the one case is it proof that religion is a scourge and in the other irrelevant? Isn’t that a hypocritical, ineffective argument?

    In the same vein, when discussing origins we are asked to explain where God came from. Our inability to explain that is seen as evidence of our feeble-mindedness. However, the atheist version of that question is, “Where did matter come from?” or maybe even “How did inert matter become a living organism that metabolizes and reproduces?”

    I am not claiming that atheists are a bunch of liars, although I am sure that they have their share, as does any group. I do sometimes feel dissatisified with their answers to certain questions, not because they are not the answers I want, but because it sometimes feels as if the game is rigged.

  14. Is my comment lost?

  15. @ Liza

    Is my comment lost?

    It was, temporarily. It somehow got picked up by the spam filter. My apologies.

    On a different variation of a similar theme, I do sometimes wonder if there is a certain sort of intellectual dishonesty that creeps into atheism.
    By that, I mean to say that often some of the arguments that are used by atheists to deny the existence of God, are just as effective when used against atheism. As Christians we are constantly reminded about the Inquisition, Crusades, etc. as proof that our religion is dangerous and harmful, yet by that token atheism is just as dangerous, if not more so. Stalin, Pol Pot, and other atheistic regimes have piled the bodies high, reaching to millions and millions of casualties. So, why in the one case is it proof that religion is a scourge and in the other irrelevant? Isn’t that a hypocritical, ineffective argument?

    My response to this is that the likes of Pol Pot, Stalin etc, while atheists, did not commit their crimes because they were atheists or in the name of atheism. They commited their crimes because they were immoral, in fact, outright evil people. Some atheists are bad people, I’ve never denied that. There’s a difference between an atheist who is bad though, and an atheist who is bad because he is an atheist. On the other hand, you’ve got the 9/11 bombers who committed their crimes specifically because of, and in the name of, their religion.
    Stalin’s and Pot’s ideologies were also based on faith, like religion. Communism involved a blind faith in a rigid, dogmatic political ideal. Ebon Musings has a brilliant article on this, I highly recommend reading it called Red Crimes.

    In the same vein, when discussing origins we are asked to explain where God came from. Our inability to explain that is seen as evidence of our feeble-mindedness. However, the atheist version of that question is, “Where did matter come from?” or maybe even “How did inert matter become a living organism that metabolizes and reproduces?”

    Your inability do explain where God comes from is not feeble mindedness, it is simply a huge flaw in the argument from intelligent design. It is far more conceivable to suggest that matter, or the universe has always existed than a complex being like God. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the only process we know of that could produce a being of God’s complexity, is natural selection. As far as inert matter becoming living organism, we have a few plausible ideas, but we don’t know for certain. Science is quite happy to say “we don’t know. We’re working on it, and we hope that one day we will know, but right now, we’ve got some good ideas, but we’re not sure”. In contrast, what you get from Christianity is complete, unwavering certainty, “God did it”.

    I am not claiming that atheists are a bunch of liars, although I am sure that they have their share, as does any group. I do sometimes feel dissatisified with their answers to certain questions, not because they are not the answers I want, but because it sometimes feels as if the game is rigged.

    I quite agree that we have some liars. All I can say is that I disagree about it being rigged, and believe that I can show why it isn’t. And, as I point out in the article, we don’t have any ‘core’ beliefs to defend, so we don’t have any motvie to rig it. If the evidence supported God, we’d be happy to believe it.

  16. I think you’ve done a nice job addressing the question: Is honesty an absolute moral virtue? Like you, I would tend to say, “usually, but there are circumstances in which a higher moral value takes precedence.” So, yes, a basically honest atheist might support avoiding the truth under certain circumstances. Religion, on the other hand, is built on lies, and is NEVER truthful. Even the claim that honesty is an absolute moral virtue is NOT truthful if it’s supposedly based on some dictum from on high. Such a basis implies that someone was lying about his or her source, if the source cannot be verified. I would ask Walker to provide evidence for his biblical “truths” using whatever facts and data he can supply. Lacking evidence, he must just be giving an opinion. However, presenting his personal, unverifiable, opinion as if it’s actually the truth–that’s lying!

    I loved your little story about your friend’s dress. However, I suspect you’re not married. When my wife asks me: “Do you like my new dress?” here’s how the rest of the conversation plays out. If I say “no,” her feelings are hurt. If I say “yes,” she says, “No you don’t. You’re just saying that to shut me up,” and her feelings are hurt. The best answer to “Do you like my new dress?” is: “Do YOU like your new dress? That’s the only important thing, Honey.”

  17. @ The Exterminator

    You make an excellent point about religion being based on lies. Yet another case of hypocrisy.

    I like the interchange between you and your wife. You’re right that I’m not married, and I did, of course, make a few artistic amendments to the dress story for the article. What I actually said in real life, was,

    “For the last time, Tim, the bloody dress looks fine! Now stop fishing for compliments!”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: