Thursday, August 04, 2011

Norway, Atheism, and the Nature of Morality

One of the odd side stories around the tragic mass murder in Norway has been the lack of coverage in the American media given to the actions of Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen who heard the shooting, saw children trying to swim away from their attacker, and made ten trips in their boat, saving forty children while taking fire themselves. Why is this story not being heralded throughout our news channels? Perhaps because Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen are a married lesbian couple and the murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, was a right-wing Christian.

The narrative we're fed is created by folks whose rhetoric, if not their politics, are similar to Behring Breivik and according to them -- and our media who accept their framing of the world -- it is the right-wing Christians who are out to protect morality, family values that will be lost if we let those horrible sinful gay people get married. When suddenly we see the gun-loving, nationalistic, fundamentalists with their eliminationist talk as dangerous and the married gay people as not only human, but virtuous and heroic, it upsets the story, the frame no longer fits. And that's because the frame is nonsense.

Morality needs a god. Without God all is allowed. Why would an atheist bother to be good? These questions are based upon a presupposition about the nature of ethics, a flawed presupposition that ethics is a set of laws to be followed. Laws need a law-giver and an enforcement mechanism that provides punishments and rewards to make sure they are followed. Atheists, by eliminating God, can no longer account for the source of moral authority behind the laws and have no reason to follow them. Hence, we are told, atheism is a threat to morality.

But the fact is, that if you do believe in heaven and hell that it is you who cannot act morally. Suppose you see someone helping out at a soup kitchen feeding the hungry. You might think, "hey, what a nice thing he is doing." But if you then found out that it was court mandated public service and that he's doing it to avoid going to prison or if you learned that really he's only doing it to impress a girl who also works there whom he has a crush on, then you would surely revise your view of the moral worth of the act. As Immanuel Kant (the most vociferous advocate of the law-based view of ethics) notes, we cannot call an act good if it is done for reward or to avoid punishment. The person who helps the old lady across the street with her bags at gunpoint is not the one deserving praise. Yet, this is exactly what we are told morality is by the standard conservative Christian frame. If you believe in the Santa God who is keeping tabs and determining whether you get an everlasting pony or sent to your room without dinner for all of eternity, you cannot be said to be acting morally. THAT is not morality.

So, why would an atheist act morally? The question makes no sense to atheists, frankly, because ethics is not a set of laws to be followed. Ethics, in the classical Greek sense, is about how to live your life. Everyone has to figure out how to live his or her life in a world full of other beings who are affected by the choices we each make. Why does the existence or non-existence of an invisible, magical man in the sky make a difference in that? It doesn't. Whether we consider others in determining what to do and how to live is a function of empathy, being able to see see others as intrinsically valuable, having concerns, projects, and being that we and others can improve through our care.

Empathy is entirely independent of metaphysical belief. There are religious people who are incredibly empathetic and do wonderful things. Some of the greatest names in history -- Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day -- fall in this camp. There are atheists who care only about themselves (see libertarians, also listed under rich white people who read Ayn Rand). But then, there are many, many deeply religious people like Anders Behring Breivik who are dangerous and evil. It does no good as some on the right have tried to do and deny that he is really a Christian. It is to beg the question to count out the evil Christians as Christian just because they are evil. And similarly, there are many, many folks who are as empathetic as Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen, who act to make the world better for others without a belief in supernatural beings.

We need to hear the story of the bravery and heroism of Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen precisely because it upsets the dominant narrative about ethics. We need for this to be an after-school special or a Hallmark original because it is only by undermining the frame of morality as religious law that we as a culture will ask the deeper questions and begin to have authentic discussions about how we ought to live.