The Morality of the New Atheism

When it comes to ethical theory, the apologists for the New Atheism are utilitarians almost to a man, if not actually to a man. They endorse some version of the “principle of utility”: what is morally right is what results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

So what makes people happy? As it turns out, studies consistently show a correlation between religiosity and happiness. (Go here for one recent example.) Religious people typically enjoy happier, more contented, more satisfying lives than non-religious people in comparable circumstances. Yet the New Atheists, by publishing books scathingly critical of religion, are attempting (one assumes) to persuade people to abandon religion. So if the aforementioned studies are reliable, the polemics of the New Atheists — if successful — will most likely reduce the net happiness of the human race. Thus, according to their own ethical theory, they are morally wrong to write and publish their anti-religion tracts.

One might reply that the New Atheists write against religion because they’re firmly convinced that religious beliefs are false, and it’s more important to believe what is true than to believe what makes one happy. This is surely correct, but we should note that this response constitutes a de facto rejection of utilitarian ethics. According to the principle of utility, what’s morally right depends only on what makes us happy, and that principle must apply to our beliefs just as it does to any other aspect of our lives. If certain beliefs increase overall human happiness then we should act so as to promote those beliefs, regardless of whether they happen to be true or false. Rather than opposing what they deride as religious mythology, the New Atheists ought to follow Plato in championing the “noble lie”.

Another possible response would be to argue that although the beliefs of religious folk may well make them happier, those same beliefs make life miserable for everyone else (not least the New Atheists). But as we all know, the non-religious constitute a minority of the world population. Wouldn’t it be morally preferable, on utilitarian principles, for this minority to suffer some relatively minor irritations for the sake of the happiness of the majority? Whatever historical atrocities committed by religious fanatics one might drag up at this point, it would be hard to make a credible case that the total unhappiness represented by these outlying cases outweighs the total happiness enjoyed by the vast number of religious believers in the world as a consequence of their religious convictions. We might also note that the prime targets of religious extremists are usually adherents of other religious traditions, not atheists and agnostics. (The prime targets of secularist extremists, on the other hand, are invariably religious believers, as 20th-century history and current world affairs illustrate only too well.)

So the problem remains. By their own moral lights, wouldn’t the New Atheists do better to suffer in silence?

In fact, they could do even better than that: they could get themselves some religion. Who knows? We might even see them crack a smile or two.

9 thoughts on “The Morality of the New Atheism”

  1. And utilitarianism has its own problems of course… what if it would benefit, say, 100,000,000 people a great deal to kill off some minority that is 10,000? From the perspective of utilitarianism, this is a morally acceptable act, if utilitarianism is taken as the actual definer of morality. If one says that’s not true, they aren’t being utilitarian-they’ve let some other morality sneak in.

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  3. “So if the aforementioned studies are reliable, the polemics of the New Atheists — if successful — will most likely reduce the net happiness of the human race.”

    We could also get the entire species intoxicated. They’d certainly be more happy than being unintoxicated, right?

    Or maybe truth has some value.

  4. So we’re defining John Stuart Mill as a non-utilitarian?

    My memory of Ethics (PHL 220 at University of Portland, bad-ass Catholic lady and fairly conservative Peg Hogan, Ph.D. presiding) reminds me that he said something about how it was better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. That strikes me as something that might push this example out of the way.

    From what I recall of Jeremy Bentham, however, there’s no argument on grounds of his utilitarianism against your example.

    1. Are you saying that religious believers are comparable to pigs? ;)

      No, I don’t define Mill as a non-utilitarian, although I do think he’s an inconsistent utilitarian. I think his defense of classical liberalism draws on principles that are ultimately at odds with the principle of utility, although it would take more than a paragraph or two to argue the point.

      In any case, an atheist objector could indeed take the line you suggest, though it would require arguing that the sort of pleasures enjoyed by religious believers are ‘lower’ pleasures than those enjoyed by enlightened secularists. It’s not immediately obvious how that argument would run.

      1. Are you saying that religious believers are comparable to pigs?

        Oh no, of course not. I consider myself to be one. I know you’re joking of course, but I’ll take it a step further and just say that religious believers are pigs only insofar as people are pigs, perhaps at times even less. I’m not a fan of utilitarianism or of the new atheism. Especially not the latter. I’m just a guy who likes pushing things on others’ blogs occasionally.

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