Atheism and Moral Incoherence 

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them….Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:18-19, 22-25)

Paul’s opening argument about the depravity of man beautifully surmises man’s implicit knowledge of his Creator, showing that man says one thing but is entirely dependent upon certain tacit facts in order to justify any other claims about the world. This evidences itself in no clearer way than the shake up in the atheism community with several prominent atheists being accused of various sexual improprieties. 

Atheist and physicist Lawrence Krauss was recently suspended from his teaching position at Arizona State University on the heels of sexual misconduct allegations. Also, David Silverman, president of American Atheists, was terminated by its board due to similar charges. Let me make myself clear: I am not claiming that these men did anything, however they are accused of several instances of sexual misconduct. The question is, what are atheists appealing to in order to justify that these men actually did anything wrong?

Andrew Seidel, at the Freethought Now! blog, posts a statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who makes a telling statement in her opening paragraph:

Given ubiquitous and undeserved stereotypes against nonbelievers, it should go without saying that it’s incumbent on those of us who have the privilege and responsibility of leading freethought groups or speaking out on behalf of nonbelief to be irreproachable in our personal conduct.

Um, “ubiquitous” and “undeserved”? I have to ask why does she think that there is a widespread and unwarranted stereotype of atheists? 

Well, let’s think through this. 

When I, speaking as a believer in Christ, affirm my belief I am appealing to a standard that was not established by tradition or human opinion. I appeal to revelation, that certain facts have been made known and that those facts have relevance to how my behavior is to be conducted and adjudicated. The standard exists objectively, external to myself,  and not dependent upon an arbitrary definition or question begging argumentation. So, when I do something that contradicts that standard, someone can check me and hold me to account. But the unbeliever, that’s where things get a little dicey. 

There are principles that they can appeal to but, given their presuppositions, it renders those principles essentially meaningless. The nonbeliever believes that he (or she, as in this case) wants to operate under the presumption that these principles of right and wrong are simply out there in the universe floating around, like dust floating in a shaft of sunlight, and all that they have to do is stand still and these magical principles will light on them, or they get to pick and choose. 

Ms. Gaylor believes that the conclusion that believers (ie Christians) have of the immorality of unbelievers is a result of bigotry, based in passages like Psalm 14:1, writing:

The most challenging public relations problem for nonbelievers in this nation remains the myth that we reject religion because we want to “go out and be sinful,” that, in a nutshell, if we don’t believe in God we are immoral.

Well, yes. If it is moral to believe in God, then it logically follows that it is, in fact, immoral to not believe. In fact God himself put not merely cognizant recognition of God as a moral requirement, but loyalty to God above anything. In fact, it’s what defines the morality of any subsequent thoughts or behaviors. But what’s important is the intrinsic contrast that the psalmist makes between the one who says that there is no God and the one that does. The one who is foolish enough to act as if there is no God does what he wants to do, and the one who acts as if there is a God does what is right. 

If there truly is no God and Krauss and Silverman did what they’re accused of, what’s really wrong with their behavior? In truth, nothing. The question Ms. Gaylor needs to answer is, whose principles is she appealing to in order to justify the claim that anything wrong was done?

She brags,

That’s why at the Freedom From Religion Foundation we have worked hard for four decades to dispel these baseless and defamatory views about atheists and other nonbelievers. We’ve developed the Freethought of the Day site, amassing and publicizing how many prominent writers, artists, musicians, scientists, and others, reject religion.

What’s wrong with that? Well, everything, because it doesn’t answer the question. 

So-and-so writer, musician, or scientist rejects religion and we think they’re cool, so if you want us to think that you’re cool, be like them.

Nothing like a fallacious appeal to popularity to buttress an argument. What’s interesting is a parenthetical concession that she has to make:

The point of the site is to document the nonreligious views of so many influential and well-known individuals who’ve contributed to society, but are not well-known for their nonbelief; many fall into the “ornaments” category. but admittedly all may not be paragons of virtue. (Emphasis added)

Then why bring it up?! Further, “being skeptical of religion” doesn’t really mean anything. I’m skeptical of religion so much so that I rarely, if ever, defend being a Baptist over being a Christian, because they’re not the same thing. 

She continues,

These persistent negative views about nonbelievers are a unique backdrop to the Buzzfeed revelations about David Silverman and his firing by American Atheists. Religionists and the media — already all too ready to condemn the nonreligious just for being nonreligious — have been granted a very good excuse to tarnish the secular movement as a whole.

Actually, no. When sinners act like sinners, “religionists” aren’t at all surprised. You know who is surprised though? The self-righteous non-religious who are under the false presumption that man is either innately good or that morality is relative. They are shocked and appalled. But why?

Gaylor continues,

But Silverman’s highly aggressive brand of atheism does not represent FFRF or many nonbelievers, nor do his alleged actions here. There’s room in the movement for differences. There’s not room for this kind of misconduct.

I’m glad that it doesn’t, but she seems to be linking the alleged behavior directly to Silverman’s “aggressive brand of atheism” even though she doesn’t want to. Indeed, if one listens to Silverman’s moral arguments, either in his debate with Frank Turek or James White, any grounds for condemning such behavior immediately becomes questionable. 

Gaylor shifts the blame for this from the reality of a nonbeliever’s detachment from any moral justification to the organizational structure, writing,

There were many concerns about American Atheists’ founder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and about her personality and irregularities. Many freethinkers did not like being asked to literally sign a statement that they were an “American atheist” in order to join the group, turning atheism into a litmus test. 

Wait. What? Atheists had problems with clarifying that they were atheists? Were they afraid that they were going to be held to some kind of orthodoxy? I’m just going to guess that she thinks that the American Atheists are the wacky fundamentalists, the Independent Fundamentalists, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation is attempting to portray itself as the liberal denomination, the super-soft Episcopalians, of the atheist religion. Interesting. 

She continues,

No excuses can be offered for the repulsive or even criminal misconduct alleged. Likewise, no excuses should be made when such actions are committed by “men of God.”

Um, yeah. Absolutely. But there’s a big difference between the two: one is operating under an standard of definitional behaviors, and the other isn’t. I’ll let you sort out which. But, did you notice how she’s trying to shift the focus from the behavior of atheists to the behavior of those who claim to be believers?

She says,

No one seems to consider that the crimes impugn the entire religion, even while churches have failed abysmally in policing themselves.

Now, she does make a valid point about the fact that the Roman Catholic Church actively covered up and suppressed known sexual abusers and even harassed and intimidated victims into silence. However, this is broad brushing of the highest order. All I have to do is point to the scandals of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, where the response on two fronts was relatively swift. The vast majority of bad behavior and even criminal behavior that occurs in the church is often dealt with relatively swiftly and without much fanfare because most churches are small and don’t make great effort to attract attention to themselves. This is simply anecdotal, so it can be taken or dismissed as such, but one church that I belonged to when it was discovered that the youth leader was engaged in a sexual relationship with a member of the group had him arrested at church. It was brought to the attention of the church by the man’s father, who was also the pastor at the time. Is this the common practice? No, but then again, a window washer at a children’s hospital was just arrested and convicted for producing child pornography. 

She continues,

The freethought movement, as I document in my anthology of women freethinkers, Women Without Superstition, has often been led by spirited women and feminists. FFRF itself was founded by two of them (my late mother and myself, back in 1976), and would not have come into existence were it not for the religious war against women, particularly against reproductive rights.

So, she has a problem with people who think that it’s wrong to kill babies. Which is distinct from how women have been generally treated by religions over the years. As I have written on this accusation before, these assertions begin with false premises, and when the original context is considered they ultimately fall apart under close scrutiny.

Gaylor proclaims,

Women can never be free unless the government is free from religion, and FFRF’s commitment to equality has been unwavering. 

Hate to break this to here but “freedom” and “equality” are religious concepts, particularly Christian religious concepts. The problem is that she doesn’t see her position as being a religious one, and that politics is ultimately a religious exercise.

She writes,

Contrast this with the bible, a handbook for rape and women’s subjection, and with 4,000 years of sexism culminating in the infamous witch purges. 

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Having read actually read the Bible, as well as studying the original historical and cultural context into which the revelation of God went, I can honestly say, that there are no such instructions. However, I can point to certain Islamic traditions where that seems to be the case. In fact, one of my first posts in the Answers in Exegesis series dealt with such an accusation as well as several posts since, see here and here.

Popping her proverbial suspenders, Gaylor writes,

At FFRF, all staff and volunteers must sign an anti-harassment policy, which also instructs on how to report any such harassment. This has been in place for decades.

Good for you! Now, provide a coherent justification for the claim that harassment is wrong and that it should be dealt with. 

She writes,

In 40 years, there have been only two reported or known occasions of sexual harassment. 

Good for you. She recounts those known instances in a measure of detail, but doesn’t say why it was wrong for that to occur or, more importantly, why their actions in regard to those instances were right.

Gaylor Notes,

The Silverman debacle will doubtless scare off young women who may have already been leery of the secular movement. There has been harm, as alleged, to the several unfortunate women involved, but the harm unfortunately will be to the entire movement.

Gee, I wonder why? I’m wondering if it has something to do with the inability to provide a coherent morality.

Gaylor’s letter is essentially a “we’re atheists, but not like those atheists” recruitment letter. But she does nothing to provide her readers with a coherent justification for why her position either makes sense or can say that what Silverman or Krauss might have done was wrong. There’s two behaviors that are in contrast, one that offers to respect women and one that doesn’t, but until one can justify the claim that women are worthy of respect then it’s just puffery. Therefore the decision to choose between those behaviors as to which is right, without proper and logically coherent justification, is merely arbitrary. One day you can respect a woman and the next disrespect her and both be morally equal.

The Christian, however, has a basis upon which to say that a woman deserves respect, even when she doesn’t respect herself. The Bible that she decried as a “handbook for rape and subjugationin the opening chapter of the first book refutes her, to her face. There it says that men and women, that which is male and female, are made in the image of their Creator. There the equality of value is established. Men and women are different, made for different purposes, but made for each other. The second chapter unpacks this idea, giving greater significance and meaning, but the fact is that they have one purpose in common: to reflect the image of their Creator to one another and to God. Part of a man’s worship and submission to his Creator and God is to love and cherish his sister in creation, to treat her with respect and honor, and likewise the woman. The symmetry is positively poetic. 

The problem is that humans fell from this. Covetousness, the illicit desire for something that is not yours, now racks us. Men who crave power will find someone to beat into submission, and likewise women. This brings disunity and disharmony. But Jesus came to show us the right way, to restore what was lost, to restore unity be demonstrating that its not the exercise of power that brings greatness, but submission and humility towards one another.

Silverman and Krauss exhibited the same attitudes: pride and arrogance. They claimed to be wise, but now have been shown to be fools. Perhaps that is what contributed to their falls.

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