Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Moral Foundation

A silly argument keeps popping up whether one can be an atheist and still be a moral person.  Well of course you can, I've seen it myself. 

It's less silly at the next level, however. Does it work into the next generation?  Can it hold for two generations?  We have a hard time measuring this, because nearly every American was religion-affiliated in 1960, so there isn't a good control group for comparison.  (Also, in terms of sexual morality, I think the cause flowed in the other direction, at least in my generation. People first decided or fell into having sex, then decided that their church rules were outmoded, and dropped the faith of their parents. The dissonance was too great.  Philosophy did not undermine behavior; behavior undermined the philosophy.)

Still, a case could at least be made that the habits of a foundational morality give the false impression that morality can be sustained indefinitely without a religious faith.  I bring it up because of the conflicts suddenly arising on the left between the Boomer liberals who adopted a fashionable skepticism and even nihilism, versus a younger PC crowd that was raised on relativism as a reality. The former were church-raised and deeply rooted in the western tradition. As the younger generation turns its skepticism on them (Jonathan Chait and Josh Marshall most recently) they have been aghast.  Rather like Obama's horror that OWS was including his friends, and even he himself, in their protests.  It was one of the few times we saw the inner conflict break out into a sweat on Barack's face.  He thought he identified with them, and so thought they must identify with him.  He moved heaven and earth for the PR on that one, even though it may have cost him with the general public. Shaken to the core. 

One can hear it still in the religious assumptions the people of my generation still make even while professing to be Buddhists or other Eastern or alternative spiritualities. Their skin is no longer Christian, but their bones still are, though they know it not.

That is is now only half true for the next generation down, and simply no longer true at all for the liberals* in the generation after that; and it is not mere lack of Biblical knowledge that I reference here.  A great deal of the western intellectual tradition persists, even as it is being mocked and rejected. But it is eroding, and those who thought no foundation is needed are no wondering what will come next.

*Plus a lot of the conservatives and independents.


jaed said...

A friend once stated that he had been raised Christian and strove to live by the tenets of Christianity, and was anti-Christian only as a matter of principle. I found this deeply honest; he understood clearly the source of his moral standards, whether he was a Christian or not. He understood that he had this in common with Christians and might not share it with non-Christians.

Texan99 said...

Little did I know, when I read "The Abolition of Man" as a teenager, that I would still be trying to work it out in my life almost half a century later.

james said...

Caught a smidgeon of a Catholic radio station this evening. The guest was asserting that Islam "has to come to terms with modernity" and with the 21'st century. I've heard that before, but not in that kind of venue or (ironically) trying to cite Benedict's Regensburg address in support. Maybe he just couldn't conceive that a Muslim might think Islam was true.

Brad said...

I think you are wrong about the failure of maintaining "morality" a couple of generations into atheism. The question is what that "morality" will look like. It will undoubtedly be less consistent and more selfish (see any communist regime).

Christopher B said...

Atheists enjoy framing the question like this since it allows them to 'steal first base' as a philosopher/blogger I used to read regularly put it without, as you point out, having to explain how they would teach their morality from first principles. Many Christians fall into the trap of arguing within that frame.

I think Brad's correct that there will be a morality but it will likely look considerably different. My own opinion is that we'll revert to a much more shame-based morality. The beginnings of it are already evident where people are called out for expressing various opinions that are viewed as reflecting badly on their 'tribe'. Even Christians aren't immune - I regularly see reposts on FB from a group called 'Christians tired of being misrepresented' which is mostly about calling attention to people who self identify as Christian while expressing unpopular opinions. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to identify what their opinions are, and who is calling them out.

Texan99 said...

I see three major categories of approach to the source of morality. One is a belief in a personal God who communicates deliberately with us and makes personal demands to behave by a certain law; this includes many self-identified Christians but not all. Another is a belief in some kind of universal organizational principle that's not necessarily personal or directly knowable, but which creates a context in which it's possible to intuit right and wrong; I'd put Deist-types of Christians in this category, but also a large swath of people who have a general belief in the importance of being on the "right team," so to speak, without professing any particular revealed religion. A third is a materialist or mechanistic approach, which sometimes leads to out-and-out amorality, but also sometimes to a fairly sophisticated view of morality as simply that which works pretty well to produce communities that can survive and thrive. A person in the third group might not be able to agree with us about the source of morality, but he might be someone we could trust not to cheat at cards.

Christopher B said...

It's not hard to build a morality that is essentially a tit-for-tat exchange (or the Golden Rule, to be less crass). Any reason for entering into the exchange is as useful as any other. It's much harder to build a morality that explains why you and I aren't justified in ganging up on a third party without invoking some universalizing principle. We're pretty adept at 'othering' groups outside our respective tribes so it takes a pretty strong belief system to weather that urge.

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