Do Atheists Borrow Religion’s Morality?

atheist-preacherBy Frank Schaeffer

Richard Dawkins calls himself a “cultural Christian,” which for him is an unusually frank acknowledgment of the fact that the “viral infection” of religion may be comforting. Indeed, as the BBC reported in December 2007:

Prof. Dawkins, who has frequently spoken out against creationism and religious fundamentalism, [said], “I’m not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions. This is historically a Christian country. I’m a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims. So, yes, I like singing carols along with everybody else. I’m not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history.”

Few atheists are willing to admit that they’re borrowing ethical and aesthetic cultural traditions from religion while others, like atheist philosopher Richard Rorty and ethicist Peter Singer, have tried to avoid all assumptions of religious moral norms in their writing. Most atheists cop out, as did Sam Harris in his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith, topping his slam on religion with a helping of sophomoric, religious-sounding whine. To paraphrase: I know we all need meaning. So hey, how about we embrace a sort of secularized Eastern mysticism to help get us through the night, you know, being that hard-edged secular Truth is, well, absolutely true and all, but it hurts our feelings, being as it’s sort of like, you know, depressing.

What Harris doesn’t do is reexamine his atheistic ideas based on the fact that if he’s right (and in a raw, pure and absolutist form atheism is unpalatable to most people), then that might be an indication that there is something to all this “religion stuff” besides the temporary emotional analgesic he describes. Maybe, if wanting meaning is the way people are, and we are part of nature, then those feelings—however they express themselves—might indicate something true about the reality of nature and the way it actually is, rather than just signaling an emotional need for religious therapy.

Or, as author and brilliant writer on evolutionary psychology Robert Wright puts it in his new book The Evolution of God, “If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe—conceivably—the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.”

The Problem with an “Invented Vocabulary” of Morality

As I said, one atheist who tried to bite the bullet in a way that Harris lacked the testicular fortitude to do was Richard Rorty. Rorty argued that we make up morality. He believed that bright people are “ironists” who understand that we know nothing except our own “vocabularies.” He said that morality is merely “the language games of one’s time.”

Rorty was the grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, a theologian, Baptist minister, and leader in what was called the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So Rorty’s nihilism is nihilism with a twist of religious awareness. Rorty is clear about his legacy from the Social Gospel/theological liberalism of his grandfather. Maybe that’s why he brings a bare-knuckle honesty to his work that, by comparison, makes Harris seem positively wimpy. In Rorty and his Critics, Rorty writes:

The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point… [W]e do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank… So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. I am just as provincial as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.

Rorty was honest enough to admit that he had problems with selling his idea of an individually invented moral vocabulary because no society raises children “to make them continually dubious,” as he said. So he wrote that “ironists” like himself should keep their views secret or at least separate their “public and private vocabularies.” In other words, Rorty admitted that his ideas had to be lied about in order to succeed, because the way people actually are does not correspond to his stark atheist philosophy.

Then there is Princeton professor, atheist, and bioethicist Peter Singer. Singer also tried to invent an ethic with no nostalgic nod to religion, especially not toward Judaism or Christianity’s sanctity-of-life beliefs. He has said that some defective children should be destroyed during a trial period after their births. Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues in his Practical Ethics, (2nd edition, 1993) that newborns lack the characteristics of personhood (“rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”) and that therefore “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.” In Germany, his positions have been compared to the Nazis, and his lectures have been disrupted all over the world by groups representing the handicapped.

According to my friend Angela Creager (one of Singer’s colleagues and a professor of the history of science at Princeton), Singer is a kind man moved by compassion. Nevertheless, he seems not to understand how his ideas strike others; for instance, as evidenced by his protesters, people with disabilities. Singer gets upset when commentators compare his proposals to Nazism, because his family lost people in the Holocaust. Singer’s objections don’t seem reasonable to me.

As Michael Burleigh, a leading historian of the Third Reich, has pointed out in a commentary on Singer’s work, eliminating defectives in pre-Nazi Germany was exactly what opened the door to the Holocaust. In his book Confronting the Nazi Past, Burleigh writes, “Singer omits to mention that one of the essential elements of [Nazi] propaganda was the denial of personality to their victims.” He adds that Singer is “displaying remarkable naiveté” when he suggests that the choices that would have to be made in evaluating a prospective defective for elimination would be in trustworthy hands if doctors were in charge. Burleigh notes that the Nazi euthanasia program was led by scientists and psychiatrists, people drawn from the best-educated and most “civilized” ranks of a sophisticated secular medical class not too different from the academic class Singer himself belongs to.

Atheists say that morality isn’t derived only from religion. I think they’re right. But they seem to have problems when deciding the limits of what is permissible under the rules of their “invented vocabulary” of morality à la Rorty and Singer. Maybe the point is that religion is derived from morality. (I explore this in my forthcoming book Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion—Or Atheism.)

I’m guessing that morality predates religion. We all act as if that’s the case. We don’t have long theological debates about, say, incest or wife abuse as though the jury is still out on what is wrong or that our sense of the matter depends on Bible verses. We evolved ideas that make life easier and less chaotic, as in: I don’t want to be clubbed in my sleep so let’s all agree that clubbing people in their sleep is wrong! Those ideas, including parents not taking kindly to “experts” telling them what they should do about their “defective” child, might be a reflection of the character of God. If there is no God, or if He doesn’t care about us, then our common morality is still the result of practical, reality-based needs, which also “teach” that a good life depends on the “Do unto others…” ethic. Either way, morality is a lot more than an individual’s invented vocabulary, and Singer’s ethic seems monstrous to many people for the same reason that George W. Bush’s torturing prisoners in the name of national security was a threat to us all.

I Want My Attorney and My Wife to Believe in God

How individuals are treated affects everyone. Ideas such as Singer’s and George W. Bush’s have consequences. There may indeed be babies born who’d be “better off” killed, or prisoners who “deserve” to be waterboarded or punched and exposed to hunger, cold, and snarling dogs. But the rest of us aren’t better off when morality becomes a function of expediency, be that in the name of national security or of “sensibly” getting rid of the need for all those expensive ramps for the disabled by getting rid of the disabled themselves at birth.

Who decides who’s next? Do you trust an academic ethicist like Singer to make life-and-death judgments when he’s so far removed from reality that he gets hurt feelings when his seminars are picketed by people in wheelchairs (the very sorts of human beings that Singer says might have been better off being killed at birth)? Should a Darth Vader figure like former Vice President Dick Cheney be kept handy to decide when torture is “okay”? Is national security worth preserving if it entails turning our country into a police state?

Do atheists really believe that morality doesn’t exist just because it can’t be put under a microscope? Do any atheists claim that (and, far more tellingly, live as though) moral propositions have no objective value? If Singer finds himself on a planet where disabled people are the norm and he is a minority of one, will he gladly entrust himself to a panel of experts to decide his fate as, in that context, an “abnormal” person? If Rorty had not been paid the royalties generated by the sale of his books, would he have failed to take his publishers to court had his editor argued that in the “invented moral vocabulary” of publishing, they’d just changed the rules of accounting? For that matter, when Singer gets his feelings hurt by outraged disabled people who compare him to the Nazis, isn’t that a tacit admission that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat people, including Australian ethicist/Princeton professors who feel that their benign intentions are being misrepresented?

And what if the New Atheist agenda succeeded beyond Dawkins and his followers’ wildest dreams? Would everything work out perfectly? For instance, what would happen to the environmentalist movement? The appeal of the environmentalist movement is handily compatible with the idea of stewardship. Maybe that appeal works because a sense of stewardship and a sense of the sacred in Nature are intrinsic to our natures, a part of the divine revelation we are gradually developing a capacity to experience. Watch any TV program on the wonders of life on Earth. Even if there is no religious content, the tone is reverential and a sense of the sacred permeates the hushed narration. Why?

A lot more motivation can be inspired by maintaining that one may do God’s will by conserving the earth than by telling people that their lives mean nothing in an ultimate sense, that they are slaves to their genes, conditioning, and evolutionary quirks—but, oh, by the way, they should sacrifice their comforts to save the planet for equally meaningless and deluded future gene rations that they’ll never meet. Or, as atheist apologist, Princeton University professor, and molecular biologist Lee M. Silver writes (in Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontier of Life) about the question of life having meaning and therefore a point: “I have yet to hear a good answer, other than there is no point.”

Now that will really fire people up to make sacrifices!

It seems to me the New Atheists have it wrong. If you deprive people of the solace of faith in a moral system of meaningful connection with something bigger than themselves, and bigger than mere connection to many other “meaningless” people, you aren’t just stripping away window dressing, but demolishing the supporting structure of a happy life. As I said, I think that Harris tacitly admits this by appending his squishy ending to his otherwise hard-nosed book. Atheists, too, depend on some form of spirituality for happiness. Why else do you think that Dawkins’ zeal can only be described as religious, and his followers as disciples? Maybe it’s because the need for meaning won’t be denied, even by people who gather to do just that.

Even one of the most church-hating fathers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, to whom Christianity was an “infamy,” found the influence of faith, and of Christianity in particular, useful: “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God,” he wrote, because “then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.”

My beef with the New Atheists and with religious fundamentalists is that their ideas just don’t seem aesthetically pleasing or imbued with the poetry that I experience in real life. Ideas about life are too small. Life trumps description, just as what some severely disabled people actually grow up to do and be trumps sage theories on whose life is “worthy to be lived.”

Is Dawkins correct when he says religious people appeal to mystery as a cop-out? Are unnamed things meaningless? Do we have to understand something in order to experience it? I don’t think so.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. He is author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and of the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism).

This article originally appeared on

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21 Responses to Do Atheists Borrow Religion’s Morality?

  1. Good article. Dogma is dogma is dogma. Unbending dogmas are appealing because they make life very simple, black and white. In a sense it’s like living in a coma where everything is done for you, and you need no personal imput, experience or contribution. People on the whole are much more complex and “grey” then I think many would like to admit, and that’s why any belief system taken unemotionally to its logical conclusion (fundamentalist) is unappealing, and groups that seek to do that are kept to the fringes of the mainstream. Religion without grace and humility, without bhakti, is identical in many ways to atheism. It strips the wonder out of life and reduces life to a series of formulas.

  2. Wow. Who organized this article?

    It almost seems irrelevant to refer back to the title theme. I will just say, religions do not only often contradict contemporary standards of morality such as in homosexuality, forced marriage for women, and slavery. They also establish abominable moral values such as detachment and relinquishment of family, as is the case in ascetic religions and ‘an eye for an eye’ retaliatory morality as evidenced in the death penalty, war waging policies and of course mass genocides (so common in the Hebrew scriptures). I have just written my dissertation on the personality of YHWH as depicted in two central selections of the scripture. The results of a personality assessment, conducted by 46 diverse participants trained in clinical psychology, reveals that the god of the Hebrew scriptures exhibits a high level of self-absorption, blaming and cruelty as well as a lack of remorse that in my estimation as a psychologist is an appalling model for humanity.

    Also, there is also just a level of moral judgement and self-righteousness that is particular to religious elitists that I rarely find in my secular atheistic friends with whom I often lovingly celebrate Christmas.

    • Gopakumar das:

      the god of the Hebrew scriptures exhibits a high level of self-absorption, blaming and cruelty as well as a lack of remorse that in my estimation as a psychologist is an appalling model for humanity.

      That was a great statement. Very profound and showing signs of a keen wit. I agree totally.
      However, the “Jesus” form of “God” was much more congenial than the God of the Old Testament.
      Maybe that is why some Jew in stealth mode wrote the Gospel of Mark, which is the first of all Christian gospels, and recreated the Jewish God in the form of Jesus so that the Jews could in fact conquer Rome after so much oppression.
      Nobody knows who wrote the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, which form the foundational works that all New Testament books were inspired by.
      Christianity is in fact based upon books of unknown origin.
      Nobody was ever willing to admit to being the author of those foundational books of Christianity.

      So, some Jews found it necessary to manufacture the Jesus myth and create a mythical god that would defeat the Greek Gods.
      In fact, the name “Jesus” is pronounced in Latin as “Hey-Zeus”.
      So, Zeus and “HEY ZEUS”(Jesus) sound almost the same.
      In the New Testament there is actually reference to Hades – the Greek god of Hell.
      So, Christianity is actually tied to the Greek mythology.
      It’s all mythology, including Jesus Christ.

      Rome dumped Zeus for “HEY ZEUS” (Jesus).
      At least the names sounded similar.

      Learn more about the Christ myth:

      Be sure to watch the videos of Dr. Robert Beckford.

      He is perhaps the greatest mind in all of western academic theology.

      I think a review of his works by the editors of this website would be obligatory.

      • In fact, the name “Jesus” is pronounced in Latin as “Hey-Zeus”.
        So, Zeus and “HEY ZEUS”(Jesus) sound almost the same.

        Prabhu, I thought you said elsewhere that you were a disciple of Srila Prabhupada. I am surprised to see so much fervor and proselytism in trying to set Christianity straight, as if that could benefit anyone’s pursue of love of God, especially in the Krsna conception.
        At least check your sources before. Jesus sounds the way you said not in Latin, but in Latino, or in other words that’s how an American would pronounce Jesus in Spanish.
        Jesus in Latin sounds more like YEH-sues, and in Jesus’ time and language I believe it was something like Yeshua.
        Zeus also has similarities with Jesus only when pronounced in English, because in Greek it sounds more like THEE-os.

        • I don’t remember posting anything claiming to be a disciple of Srila Prabhupada or anyone else.
          Do you think Prabhupada named me “Worminstool”?

          You can’t find anything I ever wrote on the web claiming to represent Srila Prabhupada as a disciple.

          By the way, nobody pronounces Zeus as Theos.
          Theos means deity or god.
          The idea that the name of Zeus is derived from Theos is also speculation.
          The Greek God in question was Zeus.
          Nobody ever referred to him as Theos.

          I had a Mexican friend named Jesus Rodriguez.
          Everybody called him “HEY ZEUS”!

        • I had a Mexican friend named Jesus Rodriguez.
          Everybody called him “HEY ZEUS”!

          Well, I rest my case, and sorry about the misunderstanding, worm in stool. I must have read someone else’s post.

        • Wow Syama… I didn’t know it was forbidden in the Krishna conception to have fervor about anything else? Although I agree that Jesus should not be linked phonetically to Zeus, I think Worminstool has the right to have enthusiasm about a subject and still be a Gaudiya. Are you a faith-o-meter now?

          From my research, Jesus was a substantial qualititative improvement on YHWH despite the fact that hell is introduced as a concept in the Gospels. That seems more related to Roman religion than to Jesus. But hell is an immensely unpalatable concept that causes little but repulsion in me. Fear tactics do little to convince me of the need for faith.

        • One beautiful thing about our path is that nobody forbids anything, but rather, some things are recognized as more or less conducive, keeping a certain goal in mind.
          If the goal is the cultivation of love of God, it seems counter intuitive to spend energies in proving how faulty or false another religious path is; it won’t make your love of God any deeper.
          You make it sound like I am saying that if one is a Krishna devotee, he shouldn’t study or try to understand Jesus and/or Christianity.
          I personally couldn’t care less about Christianity, by the way, but I don’t use web space to discredit it so fervently, and if someone does, I am surprised, which is all I said. Nobody forbids anything.

  3. It seems to me the New Atheists have it wrong. If you deprive people of the solace of faith in a moral system of meaningful connection with something bigger than themselves, and bigger than mere connection to many other “meaningless” people, you aren’t just stripping away window dressing, but demolishing the supporting structure of a happy life.

    Moral System of meaningful connection that for example gave rise to: Crusades, Destruction of the Canaanites, Gurukulis, Al Qaeda, and American Witch Hunt..

    Seriously, religious systems have given rise to the unhappiest movements known to man. I think we should divorce the question of morality and for that matter ‘happiness’ from religion and speak about some of the other objectives of religion that have maybe been more fruitful, such as maybe love of God, and meaningful group membership/sense of belonging.

  4. Detachment is an abominable moral standard? I see it as the beginning of love that allows people to be what they are rather than trying to make them what one wants them to be due to attachment and the emptiness it results in. Also moral principles are one thing and moral laws another. Moral laws often apply best to the times they were put in place and become difficult to relate for all time. Whereas moral principles are applicable at all times.

    Did you read the article?

    • I read the article but found it challenging to find its thesis.

      Detachment is a complex topic and I do not think we are always referring to the same thing when we use this word. Generally speaking, detachment brings an equanimity and sturdiness that can be both psychologically desirable and according to many spiritual paths paves the way for realization (particularly in Buddhist and Hindu circles).

      However, it is also the correlated with many psychological disturbances including Schizoid, Avoidant and in its most extreme form Antisocial Personality Disorders. When detachment reaches the interpersonal or emotional realm it causes MANY challenges for the individual and for the social groups to which they belong. In fact, one of the most prominent schools of psychology today, with massive and longitudinal empirical evidence, is Attachment Theory. This theory observes the disturbances that result from challenges in attachment to loved one, beginning with parents and continuing consistently throughout life among all intimate relationships.

      One particular attachment style is the Avoidant Attachment which can be seen as an individual’s use of ‘detachment’ as a way to avoid disappointment and the pain of separation. That may sound great on the outside, but it is a great source of despair for both the individual and those with whom the individual relates. The question I would ask is: How can we become attached in a manner that is healthy, allowing for some autonomy from others and the world and some relatedness? Is there also a way to attach that allows the sadhaka to attain the sadhya AND have intimate and functional relationships in the world? It may be a tall order, but it seems that if this can be accomplished then you can have a person well suited to be a sadhaka that lives in a world full of people.

      • I agree that the article’s thesis is illusive. Nitaisundara posted it.

        Regarding healthy detachment, the Gita speaks of detachment more as something to be attained rather than something to do. But in terms of a culture of detachment it stresses detachment not from things and people but rather from the fruit of one’s work, the carrot that people work for that distracts them from what they are doing and getting more out of it. The fruit then, beyond what one needs to live honestly, is to be offered to God. Such detached action, that is more about doing something well and dutifully than it is about getting something else from such work, gradually leads to seeing “things” equally and at a later stage seeing “people” equally. Such an orientation to things and people and ones own actions is a kind of worldly bhakti or karma mixed with bhakti. Presumably one so orientated will also be engaged in hearing and chanting as much as one has acquired a taste for these limbs of bhakti, and this includes attachment to sadhus. Bhakti grows through attachment (sanga) not detachment (vairagya). The latter is a result of the former.

        • Yes, this is why there is often a confusion on the discussion of detachment. It gets generalized and begins to be exercised as a means to remove oneself from people and relationships… this is a misuse of the term it seems.

          I think that people become attached to the concept, without understanding it, and apply what they hope it means to what it may actually mean. Many WANT to detach as a solution to human relating and the emotional storms that arise in them. However, what I find so beautiful about Gaudiya Vaisnavism is that it is a religion of attachment to the divine. I say that this is beautiful, but only insofar as it does not become a rejection of attachment to life and people too. This path seems to me less of a path of ‘neti neti’ and more of a path of abundance and relationship. If the draw of Krishna is as profound as it seems in the sadhus who embody this attachment, Krishna will not be competing for attention with other jivas.

  5. I also agree that the article spirals off topic and does not ever really return. I much preferred where it started off than where it ended, but I figured it could be critiqued. Not everything published here is representative of the sanga…Just thought I’d clarify.

  6. Why should atheism be devoid of morality? As people we are capable of holding very complex system of values. For example, the atheistic communist ideology placed a very high value on it’s version of ‘social morality’. Anybody who knows a little about life in communist Soviet Union must have noticed that.

    Are theists automatically endowed with high morality? The history tells us otherwise. Religious wars, religious persecutions, exploitation of the people by the clergy, religious fanaticism and bigotry form a major part of history and are with us even today.

    The problem with many religious people is the tendency to whitewash history and make it fit their preaching efforts.

    • From reading the article it seems that the author agrees with you, but his main point has been pointed out by Babhru: the problem with living the atheistic conclusion that life has no ultimate meaning.

      • I am of two minds about this one. Ok, lets be honest, I am of two minds about EVERYTHING.

        Anyway, I sometimes feel devoid of meaning in life when I do not have a connection with this path. When I reengage I feel a semblance of group membership and purpose. But sometimes I wonder if this is just a result of always having hoped that something ‘out there’ or ‘deep in here’ is going to fullfill that meaningless. To some extent, I wonder if this is all a hankering created by aspiration rather than an inherent spirituality. It may be the hankering for more that makes what is seem meaningless?

        Maybe if we accept that life is meaningless, at least not innately meaningful, we can begin to find that it is not pointless? Maybe in that case there would be no need for spiritual aspiration.

        Here is my own counterargument. I am not spiritually advanced at all. However, the hints I have had of mercy have been so wonderful that it does cause everything else to pale in comparison. Maybe it is easy to chuck spirituality in lieu of earthly existence, before spirituality proper has been experienced?

        • Love makes everything meaningful! Love of Krsna, love of God, love of others, love of life, love of the world, love of things…it’s all about love and learning how to expand our love to the highest limit. That’s my opinion, anyway. Whether one is a religionist or atheist, everyone is searching for love. Morality is useful only when it helps us expand our love.

        • Yes, love makes everything meaningful. Love for humanity in an atheist may dictate a humanity oriented sense of morality. Atheists do not borrow morality from religion – morality flows from their particular manifestation of love.

      • The practical atheism simply says, that because life has no predetermined meaning, we are all free to chose any meaning we like for our life. That is the essence of Maya, this material world: we are free to experiment with our own idea of what is going to make us happy.

  7. To the extent that Shaeffer’s thesis–the center of this essay–seems elusive, we can probably attribute it to the title. It’s certainly provocative, but I think it indicates a marginal issue in the article.

    I think his main point is that hard-core atheists have so deeply invested themselves in the nihilism Shaeffer points out in Rorty and Singer’s perspectives that they necessarily fall back on “religious” habits of thought (keep in mind Dawkins’ “cultural Christianity”), the need to somehow make some sense of life. (I suppose that’s how they might avoid being consumed by Sartre’s nausea.)

    If I were to ask my students to locate Shaeffer’s thesis, I believe they’d take me to the last sentence of his third paragraph:

    Maybe, if wanting meaning is the way people are, and we are part of nature, then those feelings—however they express themselves—might indicate something true about the reality of nature and the way it actually is, rather than just signaling an emotional need for religious therapy.

    One thing I especially appreciate about this thread is that it spurred Swami’s discussion of essential detachment. I find it eloquent in all the best senses of the word.

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