[On August 21, 2021, our local newspaper, The Eugene Register-Guard, published a “Guest View” by atheist Charles H. Jones, to which I felt compelled to offer a riposte, which was published as a Guest View September 4, 2021. Here are both essays.]
Guest View, “Whose Morality Carries More Weight?”
By Charles H. Jones, Register-Guard August 21, 2021, page 6A
Saying an entire class of people is immoral, such as Blacks or Jews, is generally considered prejudicial and hateful. I would be surprised to see, and don’t recall seeing, such racist statements in The R-G. Yet, versions of “atheists are immoral” have appeared at least eight times in the past four years – including three columns within the last year. This is usually stated in less obvious, but logically equivalent, variations of “morality derives from God.” But, after all, how can atheists be moral when they deny the source of morality?
This isn’t just a philosophical issue. There are countries where atheism is a capital offense. I’ve met someone who is hiding for fear of their life because they left Islam. Complete shunning – loss of family, friends and jobs – is not unusual when people leave some religious communities. I’ve met someone who was kicked out of their house at 16 for leaving Christianity.
The acceptance of openly stated anti-atheist prejudice epitomizes religious privilege. But this privilege shows itself daily via “in God we trust” and “under God.” Public promotion of faith and prayer also is an example of this privilege and prejudice. And it is very concerning that the Supreme Court is legalizing religious discrimination based on this prejudice.
Claims of moral superiority based on God aren’t limited to denouncing atheists. There are religions where not believing in the proper god deserves eternal torture. Even within a single religion, God’s supposed morality has been used to claim supremacy and privilege for men, heterosexuals, the monogamous, the married, whites and castes (among others).
Another harmful result of morality from God is the promotion of the United States as a Christian nation. Stating the mistaken belief that the Constitution is based on biblical principles reduces the roughly 30% of the U.S. that are non-Christian to second-class citizenry. I’ve personally been told I should leave the country because I’m atheist. This erroneous belief also played a part on Jan 6. Most of the people in the Capitol mob weren’t just white supremacists, they were also Christian Nationalists. Their movement is partially motivated by the belief that Christians are morally superior. Their violent actions are even supportable by Jesus’ militant side (Matthew 10:34). The Christian god is an authoritarian figure – a divine king, not an elected official.
I am not saying all theists are inherently immoral. I am not claiming there is a single external source of morality and you are immoral if you deny it. I claim, and the evidence supports, that theists are simply mistaken about their source of morality. For example, most people today condemn slavery, yet slavery is doctrinally supported by the three largest religions. Jesus never denounced slavery and implicitly condoned it, while Paul explicitly wrote, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters …” (Ephesians 6:5-6); Mohammed owned slaves; and then there’s karma. Even if some doctrinal passage appears to be anti-slavery, it demonstrates doctrinal self-contradiction rather than elimination of the doctrinal support. This is evidence that people look for doctrine to support their preexisting beliefs rather than deriving their beliefs from doctrine or God.
Religions are doctrinally in opposition. Yahweh is not Allah is not Zeus. Reincarnation does not lead to Valhalla. Claiming belief in one religion is claiming that all other religions are false. (Why claim one of thousands of religions if you don’t think it’s the one true – and thus superior – religion?) If you want to promote unity – to bring everyone together – you have to keep your religion out of the public square. This is the reason for the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This is why it is unconstitutional to promote religion in public schools and why it is polite to hold a moment of silence rather than a prayer at public gatherings. I fully support people’s right to their religious beliefs, but that same right allows me to say, “Keep them to yourselves; they’re divisive.”
Where does morality come from? There are arguments based on evolution, but most people are unaware of them. I believe most people, secular or not, derive morality from love, compassion and humanism. Isn’t having a conscience part of the human condition? Would you rape and murder if God didn’t tell you not to?
What’s more important, promoting morality and unity, or claiming one group of people is morally superior to all others?
Charles H. Jones, Ph.D., is a retired mathematician. He organizes the Eugene Atheist Pub Social through Meetup.
Guest View, “Objective human values we all cherish”
By Thomas Alderman, Register-Guard September 4 2021, page 6A
Charles H. Jones (Guest View, Register Guard August 21, 2021, page 6A) maintains that the expression, “‘morality derives from God’ [is the] logical equivalent [of] ‘atheists are immoral,’” and thus claims that to hold to traditional theism is in itself a claim to moral superiority. How fortunate we are that it is not so!
Christian theists, of all people, are the least likely to consider themselves morally superior, for the faith itself entails an admission of moral failure and the need for forgiveness. It is forgiveness that we celebrate.
Jones goes on to say that “theists are simply mistaken about their source of morality. . . . I believe most people, secular or not, derive morality from love, compassion and humanism. Isn’t having a conscience part of the human condition? Would you rape and murder if God didn’t tell you not to?”
But the question is not what I would or would not do: the question is, if I do it, am I wrong, or am I merely breaking a social convention?
Jones himself expects us to acknowledge such duties as binding apart from God, and he says we can know about these duties through conscience. Conscience is merely the perception of a moral duty, however; and in order for a duty to be objective, it must be binding irrespective of our perceptions. If it is wrong, it is not because I think it is wrong: it is wrong whether I think it is wrong or whether I do not. Otherwise, it is not objective, and my perception is an illusion – which is precisely what many other non-theists maintain.
But Jones joins the rest of humanity in affirming objective moral values and duties; his appeal to conscience, however, does not account for their existence.
If we have a duty to care for each other, it must be because of something inherently valuable in us. Then there would be something real for conscience to apprehend. But Darwinism does not help us – what is my duty to an accident of nature or a highly-organized collection of cheap chemicals? And if I myself am an accident of nature, how can I know that my experience of conscience is not itself an illusion?
Other nontheistic accounts of morality also fall short. Under social compact theory, I give up some of my prerogatives in exchange for your doing likewise so that we can coexist; but I am perfectly entitled not to give up my prerogatives (even if we call such people criminals and put them in jail). Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) Categorical Imperative taught that we are obligated to act according to principles which we would wish to be universally observed. That is surely good advice, and may seem appealing to other philosophers; but it fails to explain why we are morally wrong if we reject it. In short, no adequate nontheistic account of objective morality has ever been proposed.
But the biblical account of creation explains it well: humans have inherent value and dignity because we were created in the image of God, as we see in the first book of the Bible:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Jones is right about one thing: we do have an intuition of the value in ourselves and others and hence, of our duty to care for one another. The God image in ourselves and in others, if it is real, explains, as nothing else does, our perception of ourselves and of others as having inherent dignity and value, and justifies our belief in objective moral values. Conversely, our intuition about inherent human value, supposing it to be true, provides additional warrant for our belief in God.
God is also the best explanation for the origin of the universe, for the fine-tuning of the laws of physics, for the origin of life, for language, mathematics, and for reason itself. God exists. If God exists, then there is a ready explanation for the objective human values we all cherish.
Bio: Thomas Alderman is a lawyer and blogger living in Springfield.