My worry about the way many atheists describe the process of moral decision-making is that it seems to boil down to a sense of moral instinct, informed by a few formulas of general benevolence…
This seems so naïve, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing, when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.
Christian moral decision-making begins with a strong sense that we often try to fool ourselves, and thus we need some external check. Going to church, regular prayer, reading from scripture, specific times to meet and challenge each other’s moral instincts: all these are forms of external practice which offer checks against the dominance of my own internal moral intuitions.
On the moral fallibility of the Bible and the mixed motives Christians can have in appealing to it, Alonzo Fyfe makes a good response to Fraser. As for my own two penn’orth:
Everyone, of whatever religious views, has experience of moral deliberation. Sometimes we do this with others, sometimes on our own. But even when alone, we still can and do think about the views of others and how these might inform our own thinking. And we are still informed by the moral influences in our lives, be they familial, societal, literary, theological or whatever.
Christians have access to the Bible to help them make moral decisions. But so do atheists: just as you don’t need to believe that there really was a ‘good Samaritan’ to appreciate the parable, so you don’t have to believe that Jesus was anything other than human to wonder (if he strikes you as a good moral example) ‘What would Jesus do?’ Atheists also have recourse to the opinions and examples of any number of political leaders, moral philosophers, fictional heroes and ordinary people. And so, although they downplay these in contrast to their scripture, do Christians.
We all have as many checks as we want against self-serving self-deception; and we all have to decide for ourselves how much use we want to make of those checks.
I’m regularly surprised by how flimsy are the claims of the religious to be not necessarily morally better than atheists but morally better resourced.
Many of the atheists I get into discussion with seem content to perform an internal self-audit of their moral dispositions. … Perhaps that is what comes of having a moral vision shaped by little more than what one is against?
I can’t speak about his atheist acquaintances, but I can say that mine would think it bizarre to base a moral vision on disbelief in gods, ghosts, unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters and the rest. All this disbelief does is to remove one kind of distraction from your moral thinking.
The only atheists I’m aware of who treat the absence of god as suggesting the absence of all external checks are those who used to be religious but became disenchanted and lost faith – and with it, they lost much else as well. If you build your morality on a fairytale, you take the risk that it could crumble if, one day, your theism does.
Post-theistic solipsism is a terrible mistake. Humanity may be alone in the universe, but individual humans are not; we don’t need god in his heaven to guide us on right and wrong when we have so much that we can learn from each other.