Chapter 16: Morality, not dogma

Sunday, June 5, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Paul V. Griffith

As much hostility as adherents of the world’s religions tend to display toward each other, they reserve their greatest animosity for those who reject religion outright. Because atheists deny the notion of a supreme spiritual authority, they are often derided as amoral, libertine or, in perhaps the biggest slight of all, moral relativists. In Reasonable Atheism, Vanderbilt philosophy professors Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse argue just the opposite. If anything, they say, atheists can be more moral than believers because their moral principles are worked out in the real world, relying on logic and reason rather than religious dogma.

Unlike “New Atheists” Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, the authors of Reasonable Atheism don’t seek to eradicate religion. Though they clearly believe religion is wrong-headed, even dangerous, their goal instead is to show that godlessness is a reasonable position and deserves the same respect afforded mainstream belief systems. Further, Aikin and Talisse argue that believers who don’t intellectually engage with atheism aren’t behaving as responsible moral actors. The difference between moral and immoral people is a matter of behavior and character rather than religious belief, the authors argue.

Reasonable Atheism begins by examining what the authors call “Mom’s Maxim,” the notion that it’s impolite to discuss matters of religion or politics in mixed company. While acknowledging the need to be polite, they maintain that core beliefs like religion and politics are exactly the sort of things that should be discussed in mixed company — that is, among people who hold differing views. Because our core beliefs are central to who we are, it is of utmost importance to ensure that these views are correct, and what better way to ensure correctness, ask Aikin and Talisse, than “to take seriously the reasons, arguments, and criticisms of those who disagree”?

With the door open for dialogue, Reasonable Atheism sets about constructing a rational moral system that doesn’t require religious adherence. The brand of atheism Aikin and Talisse advocate gets its moral force from what they call an “ethics of belief.” Belief, they argue, is an active enterprise with both inward-seeking and outward-seeking components. On the inward side, moral actors must continually appraise the validity of the reasons behind what they believe. On the outward side, an ethics of belief requires that we consider the effect our beliefs and conduct have on others. Christianity, they maintain, fails to satisfy on both counts. Consider, for example, the conviction that all objective truth comes from God. If you hold this belief, then there’s really no need to appraise anything: If God forbids it, it’s wrong, and you disobey at your peril. But, the authors argue, this position confuses self-interest with morality. True morality, they say, depends on interpretation and moral reasoning, without which it’s impossible to make sense of God’s commands. How, for instance, should the believer take the biblical command in Deuteronomy 17 to stone non-believers to death? 

“No one is good in virtue of rote obedience to commands,” write Aikin and Talisse, “even if those commands come from God.” This puts atheists in a unique position: Because they aren’t forced to rationalize the existence of evil — and thus make a moral exception for God — atheists alone have the capacity to be consistent in their moral judgments. 

Lest they be accused of being too firmly entrenched in the modernist camp, Aikin and Talisse are quick to note that life is messy. In the real world, values conflict. Take, for example, the duty to be truthful and the duty to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. In such cases, say the authors, “We can do no better than to try to coordinate our best and most reflectively held judgments.” Still, Reasonable Atheism takes for granted the idea that truth flows naturally from logic, a decidedly modernist assumption. Because they argue against first-cause principles, the God that Aikin and Talisse reject is necessarily hegemonic and overwhelming. But it’s possible to look to other forms of proof to show that this definition isn’t the only option. A proof from quantum mechanics, for example, might demonstrate that God — or the Universe, if one rejects God — is a form of consciousness or series of consciousnesses. In any case, the unknown doesn’t have to be bound by decidedly Western logic, which, it bears mentioning, is as much a socially learned skill as language or mathematics.

But disproving the existence of God is only the by-product of Reasonable Atheism. For Aikin and Talisse, the main goal is to disprove the notion that religious people have a monopoly on good behavior. They maintain that religious belief not only impedes true ethical behavior, it stands in the way of democracy itself. Because democracy requires that laws be based on reason, citizens act immorally when they vote solely on the basis of religious conviction. 

Above all, Reasonable Atheism seeks to correct the idea that atheists are immoral and self-serving. For this reason alone, the book should be required reading for anyone with the courage to consider seriously their own beliefs — especially if one of those beliefs includes the notion that secularism is gradually eroding this country’s moral base. “We have tried to lay the groundwork for a civil and reasonable public debate about God, morality, and democracy,” the authors write. “With this aim in mind, we have tried to articulate a workable conception of responsible, intellectual engagement among adversaries.” In a political climate that’s increasingly charged by matters of religion, attaining that goal seems more and more important.

For more local book coverage, please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee. 


25 Comments on this post:

By: Blanketnazi2 on 6/6/11 at 5:33

Very well written article. Thanks for printing it, CP.

By: global_citizen on 6/6/11 at 6:04

I'm glad to see this in the City Paper. I've never understood the simple minded nature of people who believe you can't have morals without being a Christian.

As yourself... Who's the more moral person, someone who does good because it's the right thing to do or the one who does good because he's afraid God will send him to hell if he doesn't?

By: Blanketnazi2 on 6/6/11 at 6:08

good point, global!

By: HighlyAnnoyed on 6/6/11 at 6:42

Only in a completely insane world full of insane people would anyone have to defend being an atheist. It is, after all, the only rational position. But, we live in an insane world.

By: BigPapa on 6/6/11 at 7:33

As a devout Atheist I'm glad to see the article printed. Most atheist I've known have proven to be more morally straight forward than the religious minded. Look at the prisons and tell me what percentage are atheist vs religious, I'd be willing to bet it's less than 2%.

By: BenDover on 6/6/11 at 8:24

This article is a huge pile o' crap. It starts and builds the strawman that it is the believers who have contempt for the atheists where quite the opposite is true (illustrated by this article, in fact). Once they make that false case, they play victim with the whole.. "Oh why won't these ignoramuses lets us be, and respect our right to determine our own morality". It then uses the fact that Atheists can and do act morally as if it's some magical revelation... a silver bullet to stop the contempt they see over their shoulders by people of faith where little really exists outside the crazy yahoos like Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church of Hate.

It is nice that they characterize Atheism as a belief this time though rather than proven fact... but as this moral belief system is purified of religion if forgets that our morality is fundamentally a product of our surviving religious histories... a type of evolution where there are long forgotten lessons that lead to our current moors and dogmas as a society; and we abandon them at our peril. This is proven obvious by the social decay of society since the methodical purge of religion from public life and this country over the past century.

By: BenDover on 6/6/11 at 9:12

moors -> mores

By: brrrrk on 6/6/11 at 9:20

Well Ben, I'm glad to see you're not letting your bias get the best of you. Be that as it may, I would say your response only reinforces some of the statements made in the article.

By: BenDover on 6/6/11 at 9:25

I stick by my analysis, brrrrk.

By: global_citizen on 6/6/11 at 9:25

If you read nothing else in this article, read this:

"Because democracy requires that laws be based on reason, citizens act immorally when they vote solely on the basis of religious conviction."

If more people based their behavior on rationality, reason and consideration for their fellow humans, we would see fewer atrocities.

Only someone who is driven by blind devotion to a religious ideology and dedicated to a religious culture war can be indifferent about injustice toward their fellow human beings.

By: BigPapa on 6/6/11 at 9:31

People that think they have a god on their side are dangerous because they can rationalize any behavior and any action. "Wasn't me, God wanted it that way."

By: brrrrk on 6/6/11 at 9:32

Anyone who is opposed the the very ideas put forth by the GOP these days should consider going to the independent movie, I Am, at the Belcourt. It's an inspiring attempt to address the ideas of what's really important in our lives.

By: brrrrk on 6/6/11 at 9:36

By: BenDover on 6/6/11 at 9:51

Reason gets you only so far. There is great importance in our social and cultural norms shaped by long forgotten lessons learned.

I've programmed computers for 25 years and know every-time I look at something that doesn't seem to make sense I'm tempted to cut it out or do what I think is better based on what I know now. Experience has taught me though that usually there was a reason for the seeming stupidity that I simply was not aware.

This same concept applies to society. It is arrogant and unproductive to assume our predecessors were all a bunch of ignorant rubes; and to do so will doom us to making, again, all of the same mistakes they did.

'Reason' can be a false prophet.

By: brrrrk on 6/6/11 at 9:55

global_citizen said

"If you read nothing else in this article, read this:

'Because democracy requires that laws be based on reason, citizens act immorally when they vote solely on the basis of religious conviction.'"

This goes back to something I always say.... that when you walk into a voting booth, you should walk in, first and foremost, as a citizen of the country, and as such you should make decisions based the laws of the land; not on the law of God. To do anything else is to deny our democracy.

By: brrrrk on 6/6/11 at 10:01

BenDover said

"'Reason' can be a false prophet."

I'll take reason any day of the week; at least reason allowed us to do things like abolish slavery. On the other hand, blind faith is immovable and authoritarian in nature with no real connection to democracy.

"What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not." - Pres. James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1785

By: BenDover on 6/6/11 at 10:10

There were no Christian Abolitionists brrrrk?

That's a pretty stupid assertion.

By: brrrrk on 6/6/11 at 10:19

BenDover said

"There were no Christian Abolitionists brrrrk?

That's a pretty stupid assertion."

And what was the majority position of white churches in the South regarding abolition? Exceptions don't make the rule. And, I would also argue that the religious position on abolition had more to do with the region in which the "church" was located and very little to do with the faith of the church itself.

By: BenDover on 6/6/11 at 11:54

"As much hostility as adherents of the world’s religions tend to display toward each other, they reserve their greatest animosity for those who reject religion outright."

I challenge the writer to defend this Strawman. Where have they seen any animus or hostility from any typical Catholic or Protestant believer in this country? Where, other than the fringe kooks, is there a display of animosity as great this article's animosity against the Faithful?

By: brrrrk on 6/6/11 at 12:21

BenDover said

"'As much hostility as adherents of the world’s religions tend to display toward each other, they reserve their greatest animosity for those who reject religion outright.'

I challenge the writer to defend this Strawman. Where have they seen any animus or hostility from any typical Catholic or Protestant believer in this country?'"

Really, I'm curious, how would you know? This statement is roughly equivalent to a white person saying, "Racism? What racism? I don't see any racism."

By: BenDover on 6/6/11 at 12:24

Geezzz brrrrk... that effin' race prism you see the world through is annoying... even at a distance. I can't imagine what it must be like for you to live with it directly every day. I hope you don't teach school or something.

By: brrrrk on 6/6/11 at 12:33

Ben, ever hear of the word example? Well Ok, let's go this way.....

Your statement is roughly equivalent to a man saying, "Gender discrimination? What gender discrimination? I don't see any gender discrimination."

Your statement is roughly equivalent to a young person saying, "Agism? What agism? I don't see any agism."

Your statement is roughly equivalent to a able bodied person saying, "Discrimination against the disabled? What discrimination against the disabled? I don't see any discrimination against the disabled."

By: BigPapa on 6/6/11 at 12:58

The funny thing is Christians are the one always acting like they are persecuted, when they make up like 80% of the country.

By: BenDover on 6/6/11 at 1:29

I know a lot of Christians but I don't know any who claim to be 'persecuted' . I do know there are a lot who think that squelching the Christian viewpoint out of all of public life including education is detrimental to the country... I think that's true.

The ridiculous interpretation of the first amendment as a protection for our representative government and the population at large from religious influence is absurd and turns the whole idea free speech upon its head.

By: phlp24 on 6/7/11 at 4:21

It amuses me to think that there are people…who have renounced all the laws of God…only to invent laws for themselves, which they scrupulously obey. It would seem that their licence should be without bounds…

Blaise Pascal