From Atheism to Ethics

Perhaps the greatest obstacle faced by atheism to becoming popular, or to becoming even palatable, is that most people associate it with amorality, even immorality.  That is because ethics and religion are so closely linked in people’s minds, despite the fact that there really is no reason to believe that religious people are more ethical than atheists. (Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great gives some compelling reasons in support of this idea.)
Why is atheism linked to the alleged absence of ethics in the lives of atheists? Because many people equate atheism with materialism—I mean metaphysical materialism, not the “let’s go do a lot of shopping, and all the time,” variety. Some people think that if atheism is taken as fact, there would be nothing left in the universe but raw matter-in-motion, following the views of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and, also, quite a few contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. As I have argued before [see “Elements of Atheism,” also on this website] nothing of the sort follows from atheism per se. Not believing in God does not imply a belief in the Dawkins’ variety of raw materialism or, indeed, in any other kind of materialism. Nonetheless, the association is still strong in people’s minds.
There is much that is wrong with such an association. To begin with, the precise interpretation of materialism isn’t at all clear because the interpretation of matter in this context isn’t completely clear. In Aristotle, for example, matter was not any kind of “thing” at all but the unformed underlying aspect of any object. Even in Hobbes, matter-in-motion is just the raw, unformed stuff of reality. A reference to matter usually serves the purpose of rejecting the proposition that something has any sort of supernatural identity.  So that if we—human beings–are regarded as being composed of matter, it doesn’t truly help to determine what we are except for rejecting that there exists some kind of spirituality in human nature, perhaps something ghost-like.  But just exactly what kind of “beings” we are is left quite open, even assuming that all this can be affirmed.
The crux of the issue is that atheism is quite compatible with a very rich understanding of nature, including human nature.  Not everything has to be but brute primeval “stuff” —  much like everything that is built of the material on a sandy beach, however varied it all may look, is really just, well, sand! Instead, it is quite possible that nature, while not made up entirely of the spiritual or ghost-like, is nevertheless quite varied.  This concept comes through quite clearly, though only suggestively, in the manner in which all the natural and social sciences are compartmentalized at a university — physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, psychology, sociology, economics, and the lot.  The underlying implication is that nature contains different kinds of things and we can study them separately from each other, in the main, although they may very well be closely linked.   This position would go against the widespread notion that there is, in fact, just one thing in the world, namely matter (whatever that may be).
Now, if this rich conception of reality is accurate, then the idea that nature has ample room for a normative dimension—ethics, politics, aesthetics, and so forth—could also gain credibility. After all, nature has room, evidently, for a great variety of types and kinds of beings, as already suggested by the existence of all those university departments. Then it could turn out to be quite wrong to preclude ethics from human life simply because there is no supernatural realm, no God, no Devil, etc.
An understanding of ethics along these lines is very much suggested in Aristotle’s eudemonism, the view that we ought to live by creating or developing the most excellent version of ourselves, that is, our good human self. Modeled quite naturally on the evaluations that we carry out when it comes to other life forms, a good human self would amount to the full realization of human nature in each individual’s life. Good apples or zebras, after all, are the best that apples or zebras can be, based on their nature. The difference is that apples and zebras are good or not so good without any choice on their parts, whereas in ethics the attribution of being a good human being comes from making the right choices.  
Yet here lies another obstacle to the common understanding of atheism when it is linked to materialism: Is there room for free will in a naturalist world view? Kant, arguably the most important moral theorist in modern philosophy, didn’t think so; thus he had to postulate the noumena—that is, the spiritual realm.  In Aristotle’s more expansive understanding of nature this would not be necessary even if many of his ideas are in need of serious updating. The basic Aristotelian notion that human goodness is entirely natural, that morally right versus morally wrong conduct can be understood in naturalist terms, is an important clue about how atheism, which of course is naturalistic, need not give up on ethics (that is, bona fide ethics that involves human beings making choices for which they are responsible).
If this version of naturalism gained a footing in our culture, I am convinced atheism itself would reap the benefit of more support from ordinary people. To many people, what appears to be most important is that a worldview make room for ethics or morality (as well as politics and other evaluative areas).  But there is considerable resistance to this from those who think that the only alternative to irrational spiritualism is brute materialism.   

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