Tag Archives: utilitarianism

Do We Need God to be Good?

This exchange between Christian apologist Andy Bannister and atheist ethicist Peter Singer is worth your time (especially if you watch at 1.25 speed):

A few comments on why it’s a useful discussion:

1. Singer is representative of the modern secular intellectual. Sure, he advocates some highly controversial ethical positions, but his general outlook isn’t fringe. In a sense, he’s only controversial because he’s willing to say openly what he takes to be the logical implications of his worldview. Singer takes for granted the standard naturalistic evolutionary account of human origins. His approach to ethics is a modern, sophisticated version of utilitarianism. He doesn’t have a religious bone in his body, so it would seem, and he doesn’t think there’s the slightest reason to believe in God. I got the impression he could barely conceal his incredulity at Bannister’s views. I suspect he rarely interacts with orthodox Christian intellectuals.

2. Singer trots out the old Euthyphro problem as if it deals a swift death-blow to any divine command theory of ethics, but there’s no evidence that he’s familiar with (or even interested in) the standard responses that have been offered by Christian philosophers. He also thinks the problem of suffering is devastating to any theistic worldview; he can’t begin to understand why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator would allow the amount and intensity of suffering we find in the world. (Note how much he rests on assumptions about what God would or wouldn’t do. Atheists just can’t help theologizing!) All of this is fairly typical of 21st-century atheist intellectuals: smart and articulate, yet superficial and uninformed in their criticisms of Christian theism.

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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.