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)