I am going to try to lay out a consistent atheistic moral philosophy in the coming days/weeks. In my opinion all ethical theories have some serious problems, some more than others. I’m going to present the one I think has the least amount of problems. I’m also going to try to answer as many objections as I can, and offer some reasonable test case scenario’s to show how this ethic can and does describe what we in fact do, and what we ought to do. The theory I will lay out will be shot at by people on both sides of the fence, both Christian and atheist. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to an atheistic ethic. Atheists disagree with each other on this issue, as we do about politics. So I do not expect atheists to agree with me, and so I invite helpful and constructive criticisms from everyone.
Since I have argued against the Christian ethic in several places, then I need to spell out my alternative, and I will. In the first place, I want an ethic that is based upon some solid evidence about who we are as human beings and why we act the way we do. Any kind of ethic that tells us to do that which we are incapable of doing, is too idealistic and guilt producing to be helpful to guide us as human beings. Such an ethic, in my opinion, demands that we behave non-humanly. I think the Christian personal ethic does just this, as one example. We are not divine beings. We’re human beings. The Christian ethic demands complete selflessness, although it doesn’t deny Christians ought to have self-respect as God’s redeemed creatures. Still, Christians are to “die daily” with Paul, take up their crosses and follow Jesus. Self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-discipline seem to be the hallmarks of the personal Christian ethic in its most basic and fundamental sense. They are to have sacrificial agape love for everyone, although, Augustine argued that Christians are obligated to have this kind of love for the closest of kin first, then their community, then their culture and then finally to those outside their culture. That is, they have a primary duty to love the people closest to them, but they should love everyone. This means showing people mercy, and giving people the needed justice they deserve, depending upon the duty we have to each person as he is related to us. According to Christian teaching, the Holy Spirit, the divine paraclete, helps the believers to fulfill the demands of agape love.
There is more to the Christian view, of course, including the killing of heretics, and the beating of slaves. ;-) Still, it’s entirely unrealistic to expect people to have agape love toward people just as Jesus did (if we presume with them that Jesus is their idealistic model). It fosters guilt. It cannot be done, even with the Holy Spirit’s help (presuming there is such a being). Plus there is strong evidence down through the centuries that the Holy Spirit has not properly done his job well among professing Christians (the only kind of Christian we see). ;-)
Furthermore, the Christian ethic is based upon a motivation that must be judged from the Christian perspective to be a completely ill-founded and unethical. The threat is hell, however conceived. Think of it this way, if there is no hell and everyone will be rewarded equally in heaven when we die, then Christians would not need to try to live the Christian ethic, and I doubt many of them would care to do so at that point, especially when they want to do something they know is against “God’s will.” Christians might want to claim they obey because it’s “the right thing to do,” but just ask them one question on this. Ask them if they would rape, steal and kill if God told them to do so, lest they will be cast in hell forever. If they would obey God and rape, steal and kill, then their basic motivation is to obey because of the fear of hell. However, if they would not obey God by doing these things, then they do not obey God simply because obeying God is the right thing to do. [Q.E.D.]
Christians will claim God would never command them to do these things, but in fact the God of the Bible did do this. Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. Would YOU obey God if he told YOU to do so? A female captive in war was forced to be an Israelite man’s wife (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). If a virgin who was pledged to be married was raped, she was to be stoned along with her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), while if a virgin who was not pledged to be married was raped, she was supposed to marry her attacker (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), not to mention the pleasure of “dashing of children against rocks,” and genocide itself. More to the point, the fear of hell is not a good Christian basis for being ethical. It would place the obedience to God on the same par with obeying a robber who has a gun pointed at your head.
In conclusion, I argue that I want an ethic that is based upon some solid evidence about who we are as human beings and why we act the way we do. The Christian ethic is practically impossible to obey, and the motivation for obeying must be judged to be based upon rational self-interest, which is basically the same ethic I will be arguing for later, without the barbaric divine commands.
This is part 1. To read the other parts see here.