The Atheist's Value
System Is Arbitrary
Bill Skiba

 

These letters and responses have been edited for publication. To make them easier to take seriously, numerous idiosincracies in the letters (such as the use of the slash ["/"] as an abbreviation and arbitrarily switching between the American and U.K. punctuating styles) have been converted to conventional English; otherwise, the letters themselves are, for the most part, untouched. Also, what was originally intended and indicated as a private note to the letter writer is now incorporated into our response.

 

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Are There Values In Religion That We, As Atheists, Are Missing 9930
Date: September 15, 2001 9:18 AM

How is this arbitrary? Explain.

Then explain how is is any less arbitrary than choosing a religious faith. What if I decided to become a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Sufi? Explain to me how that would not be arbitrary.

Finally, why is it that you omit consensus from this discussion, portraying the atheist as acting entirely alone in making moral decisions? Did you leave this crucial element out of your discussion so as to make the atheistic position easier to refute?
 

Interesting: I've never had a problem justifying any moral position that I have ever taken. Just ask any of my friends: they think I go to too great lengths justifying what I do and say, and often suggest that I back off and relax. No. I have thought long and hard about what is right and wrong for me to do, and have spent no small portion of my life learning the various ways to determine the best course of action when presented with new, unprecedented choices.

The Bible, for example, does not help us make unprecedented choices, but gives us a list of dos and don'ts. If a choice comes along that is not on that list, the Bible believer is out of luck -- unless she or he uses the same system that any atheist uses: human reason.

Meanwhile, what if the Bible, for example, commands us to dash infants against the rocks? Is the Bible believer obligated to obey this commandment?

You see, Biblical morality is not morality but obedience: you do what you're told. The Bible believer is not called upon to justify her or his actions, but simply to obey. If the Bible believer obeys, she or he will be rewarded with future bliss (or so the story goes -- I don't believe it for a minute). If the Bible believer does not obey, she or he will be punished with future misery. So, the Bible believer's "justification" ends up becoming the self-serving desire to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain. Hmmm. Seems I've heard that one leveled against atheists!

However, if a human is placed in a position to have to decide right from wrong without a list of rules, the human cannot but justify his or her choices -- and this justification naturally comes before the decision.

Fortunately for all of us, most Bible believers do not practice biblical morality, but practice morality the same way most atheists practice it: by first thinking through the possible consequences of various choices and making the choice which the human in question thinks is the best one.

Personally, I try to make choices that will do the least amount of overall harm -- not necessarily to myself, but overall, period. For example, if falling on a live grenade would prevent a large device from exploding and killing hundreds of people, I would fall on the live grenade, killing only myself. I look for the least amount of overall harm; all things being relatively equal (which they usually are in my life), I will then look after myself because I can only be of service to others if my physical needs are met.

I used to try to make choices that I thought would accomplish the most good, but have since rejected that model as the one I favor (although I sometimes find myself in the position of having to use it). But I find that I must be careful because any good also contains harms. So, I always consider the amount of harm possible in any choice, and if I see no great potential for harm in any of the choices I'm considering, I will switch gears and look for the greatest good.

Therefore, I want you to justify your claim that it is impossible for an atheist to justify the code of ethics which she or he uses.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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October 15, 2001

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Bill Skiba"
Subject: Re: Morals and atheism
Date: October 15, 2001 3:54 PM

In looking at my records, I have no response from you after my challenge that you substantiate your claim that "The atheist may have a moral code, but ... is unable to justify that moral code."

As for a list of codes, I don't have one of those. I use a method. I have certain "game rules" that apply, for example, when guests visit my home or which must be observed for me to be willing to continue my part of a relationship. But I don't have a list of dos and don'ts or a list of good and evil. This is because each situation involves a choice: it is that choice, given each individual situation, that makes morality, not a list of dos and don'ts.
 

I merely mentioned that working in consensus with others is among the many tools available to me with which to make moral decisions. I said nothing about there being any consensus among atheists regarding moral codes in general, except that any moral codes come, naturally, from humans (or extraterrestrials, among those atheists who believe Benign Space Brothers watch after us -- or even created us).
 

I merely told you what I would do. I did not carry it any further than that.

Who said anything about moral obligation? Why do you read your own values into what I say, rather than take note that what I said was a complete statement? I only said certain things and left other things unsaid (perhaps for a reason? perhaps because they do not correspond to my views?).

True, this is my only life, but extending it for a few more moments will not allow me to keep it. In the end, nothing I do will allow me to keep my life, so I might as well do the most with what little life I get to live.

When my life is over, it will be, for me, as if I never lived at all: it will be, for me, nothing. All that will be left will be what I will have left behind after I have ceased to exist: my words and my works. Even those will not last much longer than I did.

Knowing this would compel me to fall on the grenade. I don't think I could live with myself having "run for it," thereby letting so many others come to harm when the simple act of falling on the grenade would have prevented all that. Knowing that I will never get to keep my life, being able to extend it for a few more moments would mean nothing to me. It has been other people's "turn" in the past and it will be still other people's "turn" in the future, but at that moment, it would be my "turn."

I'd bet that under similar circumstances, you would fall on the grenade, too. And during those final moments while you lie there, adjusting the position of your body to absorb as much of the impact as possible, sometime, in-between those last two ticks of the timer, the thought might occur to you that this is the only life you get. And if that thought did occur to you, I doubt this would make much difference to you in the face of saving numerous lives by your act.

This may just be human nature, but I doubt that even knowing that this is your only life would change your behavior when it comes to sacrificing yourself for the direct benefit of others. You might feel differently were this a question of fighting in an ideological war, such as the Vietnam War (versus, for example, the Second World War), but if the sacrifice of your life were guaranteed to save the lives of several others in a direct exchange, you would probably do it with or without an afterlife.

I don't think you'd "run for it" at all: I think you're just saying that for the purpose of discrediting the atheistic position (though why you'd do that is beyond me). What it does, though, is discredit your understanding of human morality and human emotion, as given to us by evolution. You're saying that only the prospect of an afterlife would prompt you to behave a certain way. In essence, you're saying that you have no morals. In addition, since you think you have no morals, you refuse to believe it possible for me to have morals, so you (inaccurately) predict that I would act amorally just like you think you'd act. However, I still bet that you do, in fact, have morals and that you would remain firmly clutched to that grenade even if doing so gave you a full revelation of the utter finality of death.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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Added: November 21, 2001

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Bill Skiba"
Subject: Re: Morals and atheism
Date: October 17, 2001 9:35 PM

You keep asking me to describe my method and that is precisely what I don't think I can do. This is something that I have grown up with, that my parents got me started on, and I have not paid attentions to the nuts and bolts of it: I can only take a given situation and know how I would address it. Were I in a position to be able to perhaps market it (perhaps someone offered to let me write a book), then I could justify setting aside a few years of my life and studying the nuts and bolts of it.

As for "game rules," that is slang for a set of agreed-upon criteria for acting in certain situations. American law is a set of game rules, as is the "About" page of this Forum.
 

I hate it when people enclose a set of their own words within a pair of quotation marks and then ask me if that is what I said. If you have any specific questions about what I actually said, I'd be glad to address them as best I can. For me to extract from within the quotation marks only those words which reflect what I actually said would be way too confusing for all of us.
 

I would be compelled to do it because this is the way I am. It would be very painful for me to act contrary to the way that I am, the way that I believe is right, the way that coincides with what I see when I open my eyes and look at the world. I would sit there for hours on end wondering how I could have possibly done such a thing, it being so utterly unlike me to act that way. I don't act certain ways in order to avoid the pain of that dilemma, quite the contrary; I am not even thinking along those lines when I act. However, there are certain ways in which I can expect myself to act under certain stresses, and I cannot fathom myself making a decision to act otherwise. I am quite happy with myself and with how I respond to various situations. There is always room for improvement, but how I was raised and what I have groomed myself to be like and how nature chose to make me come out go along very well with my tastes.

If you want to call that "morality," I cannot stop you, but please don't tell anybody that "morality" is what I called it.

And if I am contradicting myself, so be it. Some things are more important than others, and as long as I get most of the important stuff right I'll be okay with myself.
 

I have no clue why you are sitting there picking apart my approach to life, particularly your zeal to try to label my thinking and stuff it into some prefabricated mold. That is what this entire conversation has felt like: you trying to get me to "admit" (or whatever) that I fit your preconceptions of something (an atheist, perhaps?).

I am hoping that this is merely some very odd way of having fun. I certainly hope that you aren't planning to use this to write some sort of representative "example" of how certain types of people think and act (such as atheists) because I promise you that I am not a typical anything. Everybody who has ever known me even casually has told me that they've never seen the likes of me before. People don't normally just up and tell someone, "Hey! I've never seen the likes of you before! Usually people fit into this or that main type, but I still don't quite know what makes you tick."

However, your tendency to want to categorize just about everything that has graced this conversation makes me nervous.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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