Benjamin O’Donnell seems to be writing a series of articles on the ‘new atheists.’ His one on dogmatism (see New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?) was refreshing. His latest article Morality and the ‘new atheism’ is also well worth reading. In this he points out that the “problem of morality” is commonly used to criticise the “new atheists” (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens):
“how, many religious critics ask, can we be good without God? Isn’t the fact that people are good, that people can tell good from evil, evidence for the existence of God? Even if God is a myth, isn’t He necessary to inspire people to acts of goodness and to keep them from falling into immorality? And in any case, don’t we get our morals from our religious traditions?”
O’Donnell breaks down the criticisms into five arguments:
- The argument from scripture
- The platonic argument
- The argument from the mysterious origin of morality
- The role of religion in moral progress.
- The sanction argument
Discussing moral progress he says:
“The story of moral progress seems to me to be the story of the marriage between our evolved capacity for empathy and our evolved capacity for reason. As we apply our reason to our urge to be altruistic, and as we become more interconnected with strangers, we see fewer reasons to put people into the “out group”. Our psychological “in group” expands until in some people it covers not just the whole human race, but sentient non-human animals too.”
But he does accept a role for religion in moral development:
“religion in general (and Christianity in particular) has helped enormously. Just as alchemy made many discoveries that were built on by chemistry, and astrology made some discoveries that were built on by astronomy (mostly in the field of cataloguing astral bodies, but still useful discoveries), Christianity made or widely propagated several moral innovations that modern secular moral philosophy has built upon. (Similar claims can be made for several other religions.) Not for nothing did Richard Dawkins once write an article entitled “Atheists for Jesus”.
“But religion has also contaminated the stream with some very strange and unfounded ideas. Just as there is no evidence that one can turn lead into gold and there is no evidence that the movements of the planet Venus affect my destiny; there is no evidence that there is a “soul” that enters the human zygote at conception, or that there is an afterlife in which kindness is rewarded and cruelty is punished. And it is religions’ reliance on the dogma of faith that makes it so hard to use reason to sort the good ideas from the bad.”
New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?
Christian problems with morality
Religion and the “New Atheists”
Morals, values and the limits of science
Is religion the source of morality?
Crimes of Communism and Christianity
Religion and morality