A post on Daylight Atheism regarding a religion reporter who had deconverted brought atheism to my mind, once again. I have thought, in the past, on what would be necessary for people to feel comfortable identifying as atheists, and not to feel that they are missing out by rejecting the false claims of religion. For, I fear, there are those who would rather profess to believe a lie than to accept a truth they find uncomfortable.
Lately, as I have written elsewhere, I have been reading Plato, as part of my project to read a good portion of the western canon, and so to be ‘well-read’. I have said it before, though not here, but I feel that reading, be the literature fiction or non-fiction, and of really any sort, confers moral benefits on the reader. For, if the literature be fiction, the situations and the themes expressed by the work should communicate some moral knowledge to the reader, either directly, as of a fable with a moral, or indirectly, as the reader considers (even if only briefly and in no great depth!) what he has read. The same applies, I would say, to narrative nonfiction–biography, history, or such–for I do not conceive of any essential difference between the fictional and true, from the perspective of the reader. As for the non-fictional, non-narrative works, such as science textbooks, or indeed repair manuals or any other thing, where these books instruct truly, the reader is enriched by learning more of the world, and where falsely, the reader is given the opportunity to discover the falsehood. Learning more of the world is of necessity beneficial, in my opinion–for all moral decisions are made in the context of the world, and particularly of the moral agent’s knowledge of the world. The opportunity to discover falsehood is beneficial insofar as men are likely to encounter falsehood at many points in life, and to be better able to recognize falsehood is to be better able to recognize truth.
The preceding is, perhaps, a very optimistic view of reading. I feel that /some/ benefit is conferred upon the reader, however small, but I do not claim that the benefit will be larger than might be obtained by otherwise employing one’s time. In some cases, I think it will, but in other cases almost certainly it will not. So: I say that reading is a beneficial activity, and that, furthermore, the degree of benefit depends on how wisely chosen are the books read.
So my project of reading the western canon is not merely a project to satisfy my ego, that I may pridefully boast of being well-read. Rather, it is a project of self-improvement, both moral and of my knowledge and other wisdom. How, then, precisely, does this relate to my earlier statements regarding atheism and religion? For though the link between morality and these matters is not hidden, there must certainly be more to it for me to discourse at such length on the subject. And so there is.
I thought, earlier today, that one benefit (or, one perceived benefit, for I do not accept without question that it is truly beneficial) that religion has over atheism is that a religion tends to provide a body of moral teachings that can be readily referred to. I do not claim (nor do I agree!) that these moral teachings are consistent, or even in all cases good, but they do nonetheless exist. If a Christian parent wishes to instruct his child not to steal, he may say, “do not steal, for the bible commands we do not.” If he wishes to instruct his child not to lie, he may say, “do not lie, for the bible commands we not bear false witness.” If he wishes to obtain obedience from his child, he may say, “do as I say, for the bible commands you honor your father and mother.” Whether these teachings are good moral teachings is in some ways immaterial–they are convenient. The Christian can refer to the bible or other teachings of the church for, if not guidance on any question, at least rhetorical support of his words.
Of course, I do not hold that atheists are without morals, nor that Christians are especially moral. But, atheists have no single, unifying body of moral teachings that they may refer to. For, an atheist is merely not a Christian, and also not a Muslim, nor a Buddhist, nor a believer in any gods–no other creed joins atheists together, generally.
Naturally, sources of moral guidance (or merely rhetorical support) do exists for atheists. An atheist may even refer to religious texts, accepting those teachings he agrees with and calling upon the authority of the text with those who believe in those teachings. And otherwise, there have been millennia of philosophical writings on all manner of moral questions. Even Plato wrote of such questions, over 2400 years ago, and he was surely not the first.
What work or works should atheists all look to, though, as unifying them and guiding them morally? If one were in the occident, and willing to read a great deal, one might indeed point to such a list of books as I have made of the western canon, and say that these, taken together, form a basis for moral understanding, representing the thoughts of thousands of years of wise men. But this is too much to ask. Even if I read quite quickly indeed, I am some years from completing even the list I have compiled, and I cannot expect others to read as much or as quickly as I do. A moral guide which is read and understood by no one is not useful.
I am conscious of the fact that books have been written, particularly to set out an atheist moral philosophy. I have never read one of these, so I do not know if perhaps one of them is a worthy work that all may benefit from and that may serve the purpose I have described. But, even if such a work may exist, no one work has in fact come to fill that place as a moral reference that the bible serves for Christians.
What then do I propose? Nothing. I have no answer to give. I know of no one who could be said to be qualified to write a moral guide to serve the whole world and every atheist or theist in it adequately, nor am I arrogant enough to believe that I may fill that role–nor that I may ever be wise enough to do so. It may not be possible. But, even if that one, excellent work does not now exist, nor may ever come to exist, still I think it could be beneficial to our cause–to promoting truth and thereby ending religion–if some approximation of such a book were written or chosen, and agreed upon broadly, if not (for I suppose it may be impossible) universally, so that when asked on what, then, we base our morality, we may say at least “though our beliefs are many and varied, here you may find much of that which many of us believe, in common with one another.” And I guess that such a work would in many particulars also agree with the moral sensibilities of religious people, and perhaps, if they do not use it to instruct themselves how better to make moral decisions, at least they may say (if my Latin is not too offensively incorrect) “do not lie, my child, for the Summa Ethica indicates that it is immoral.”