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Atheist Ethics :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

We have looked at how to better define atheism and the rational case for atheism.  In this post I will summarize Julian Baggini’s own summary of atheist ethics, presented in chapter 3 of his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  Where does morality come from?  How can people who don’t believe in God believe there are moral codes everyone should obey?  Does morality automatically make perfect sense in a theistic framework?  He answers these types of questions in this chapter.

What is Atheism?

Chapter 3: Atheist Ethics

Many people believe that in order for morality to be possible, one must have a lawgiver and a judge who either punishes or rewards, but Baggini says this confuses law and morality—laws can be either moral or immoral.  The big question is this: Where does morality come from?  The author makes his case against the theist view of morality by breathing fresh air into the Euthypryo dilemma from the Socratic dialogues: Does God (or the gods) choose what is good because it is good, or is the good good because God (or the gods) choose it?  If we answer this question by arguing that God just is goodness (God and good are the same thing), the Euthypryo dilemma only needs to be restated differently:

Is God good because to be good just is to be whatever God is; or is God good because God has all the properties of goodness?  If we choose the former answer we again find that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be, even if God were a sadist.  So we must choose the second option … this means the properties of goodness can be specified independently of God and so the idea of goodness does not in any way depend upon the existence of God. (39)

In other words, “God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary” (39).  Furthermore, being moral due to fear of punishment or self-interest in reward only taints (if not ruins) the concept of morality, giving the atheist “more moral merit” than the theist (40).  But doesn’t this leave us all with our own “privatized moralities”?  Yes, answers Baggini, but to ask the question this way (as an objection) misses the point that we all inevitably have our own privatized moralities anyway because “individual choice is an inescapable part of morality whether one believes in God or not” (41).  There is no way to avoid making private decisions about what is morally right or wrong even in the theistic framework for morality, for two reasons: 1) one must make the privatized decision in the first place to follow the moral law of a religion—a decision which could later be changed or abandoned, 2) even while one has adopted a moral code of a particular religion, one still is forced to either accept these laws or reject them.  More to the point: since “listening to the advice of their holy men (it is usually men)” religious persons have been led to “suicide bombing, bigotry, and other moral wrongs, it should be obvious that” adopting a religious morality “does not absolve one of moral responsibility” (43).  In the end, we must all “in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves” even if we are religious and have decided to follow the moral path laid out by that religion (46).

No Easy Answers for Grounding Morality 

Baggini finds the whole question “Why should I be moral?” strange.  There are no easy answers.  A non-moral answer to the question only undermines morality—for example, that we should be moral because we will be happier if we do or punished if we don’t.  Again, if we act moral out of self-interest, Baggini thinks we undermine morality because “morality is about acting in the best interest of others and oneself” (44).  If we give a moral answer “because we ought to do what is right” our reason becomes circular.  We shouldn’t expect an easy answer or source for morality that every rational person should recognize because no such answer exists.

At the root of morality is empathy and concern for the welfare of others that is, for most, a part of human instinct.  It’s not a logical impulse that leads us to morality, but a psychological one.  Yet if we accept it, we have a foundation for morality and the richness of Western philosophy provides a diversity of approaches for working this out.

Building a Godless Ethic

Aristotelian ethics helps us think about morality in terms of our desire for happiness and helps us see strategies for instilling virtues (although Baggini criticizes this model because he thinks any morality based on self-interest is problematic).  Nevertheless when we simply think of what we need in order for life to go well, morality comes into play.  Living well, however, and self-interest do not always coincide, so we need to draw from other sources of philosophy.

Utilitarianism can be another source: we think in terms of what causes pleasure and pain, then we evaluate our actions based on their consequences (both for ourselves and others).  So long as we agree that pain is bad, morality comes into play.  “Bad consequences thus provide reasons not to do certain actions and good consequences provide reasons to do others” (52).  This adds another “pillar upon which to build a godless morality” (52).

Another pillar is Kant’s categorical imperative: asking “what would happen if everyone behaved that way?”  This helps us think about the moral merit of an action apart from self-interest, which helps us avoid being hypocritical.  It’s obvious that Baggini favors this pillar above the others, for he already has shown his hand that he believes it is essential to morality to avoid self-interest.  “Some form of universalizability is both an essential feature of moral rules and a natural part of moral reasoning” (54).  What is good or bad for us should be considered good or bad also for all others in similar circumstances.

In the end, Baggini admits he has not provided any sort of logical proof that atheists ought to behave morally, but he is not bothered by this because he thinks theists have no such logical proof either.  It’s a myth, he argues, that morality just comes along with the package if you are a theist.  “Being good is a challenge for everyone, atheist or non-atheist” (56).

Can an Atheist Believe in Meaning or Purpose? 

In our next post, we will explore meaning and purpose within an atheist worldview.  Once I have summarized all of the major points in each chapter, I will offer my own personal assessment of Julian Baggini’s account of atheism.

The Case for Atheism :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

In this post I will summarize Julian Baggini’s own summary of the case for atheism, presented in chapter 2 of his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.

What is Atheism?

Chapter 2: The Case for Atheism

To make a case for anything, argues Baggini, one must use a combination of argument/logic, facts/evidence, and rhetoric.  Rhetoric is the odd ball here, since it can neither make a case good or bad, but only makes good or bad cases more or less persuasive.  The structure of Baggini’s overall argument is this: strong evidence counts in favor of atheism, and only weak evidence counts against it.  What makes evidence stronger is its experimental verification—that is, “evidence is stronger if it is available to inspection by more people on repeated occasions” (13).  Likewise evidence is weaker if “it is confined to the testimony of a small number of people on limited occasions” (13).


There is a continuum here, with extremes on each side.  On the extreme side of strong evidence we have things like “in countless repeatable tests countless scientists have verified that water freezes at zero degrees centigrade,” and on the extreme side of weak evidence we have anecdotal evidence such as “my dog spontaneously combusted right before my eyes yesterday at 2:00pm while I was at home all alone.”  In the former case, we have countless witnesses and can repeatably test the claim.  In the latter case, we have a claim that relies on the testimony of a single person relating one incident.  It’s not that the latter is not evidence at all, it’s just that it is weak when compared to “all the other evidence” that suggests dogs do not spontaneously combust (14).

Secondly, it’s not strong evidence because “human beings are not very good at interpreting their experiences especially unusual ones” (14).  This does not mean such testimony should reflect poorly on the character of the one testifying to some anomaly—they could be the victim of a clever trickster or just be mistaken about the interpretation of their experience.  The strength of evidence grows in proportion, then, to an occurrence’s repetition under close scrutiny.  The close scrutiny part is important too, since magicians (for example) can make it seem that rabbits can be instantaneously transported into previously empty hats quite regularly, but such an occurrence (though there might be thousands of witnesses) does not hold up under close scrutiny.

Baggini insists that the argument for atheism  does not follow the “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” fallacy, for he is not concluding that absence of evidence for God’s existence necessarily means God does not exist, only that the strongest evidence favors naturalism, and only weak evidence seems to favor Theism (or anything supernatural).  Thus, the conclusion of his argument is not “God does not exist,” but rather: we have no good reason to suppose God exists, for nature is found to lack any good reason for such a hypothesis.

If we look inside the fridge, thoroughly examine it, and don’t find any butter, then we have an absence of evidence which really does add up to evidence of absence.  Indeed, it is hard to see what other evidence there could be for something not being there other than the failure to find any evidence that it is there.  Something which does not exist leaves no mark, so it can only be an absence of marks of its existence that can provide evidence for its non-existence. … So the evidence for atheism is to be found in the fact that there is a plethora of evidence for the truth of naturalism and an absence of evidence for anything else. (17)

It’s unfortunate that many people see atheism as simply an attack on the existence of God rather than the affirmation of naturalism, which rules out “goblins, hobbits, truly everlasting gobstoppers,” etc., and God just happens to be another one of those postulates that lacks any strong evidence.  Owing to historical circumstances, however, atheism is the name branded to naturalists, which perpetuates the stereotype of atheism as something fundamentally negative.

Although atheist humanism tends to affirm “human exceptionalism” (the belief that humans are essentially different from other animals) it does not go as far as to claim that human beings survive death after the grave because they have an immaterial soul.  All the strong evidence suggests that human consciousness is the product of brain activity “and that with no brain, there is no consciousness” (18).

The data of neurology show that all the diverse experiences which we associate with consciousness correlate with particular patterns of brain activity.  The key word here, of course, is ‘correlate.’  To say brain events are conscious experiences correlate is only to say one always accompanies the other.  This is not to say one causes the other.  … But while it is true that a correlation does not necessarily indicate a cause, in the case of brains and consciousness the link is at least one of dependency. … If any one thing distinguishes us as individual persons then that must be our capacity for consciousness and rational thought.  And if this capacity is entirely dependent on our organic brains, as the strong evidence suggests, then the atheist view that we are mortal, biological organisms is well supported.  (18)

Counter-evidence is of the weak variety—from the testimony of mediums, supposed appearances of ghosts, near death experiences, and so on.  Demanding a case-by-case rebuttal from atheists on any claim of life after death, as many do, places an unfair burden on the atheist.  It’s enough that atheism can appeal to general principles and strong evidence.  The burden of proof should be on the non-atheist.  And in any case, “none of these so-called cases … have left us with anything approaching the kind of generally observable, verifiable data that is characteristic of strong evidence.  So the question for the non-atheist must be, why do they think that a few pieces of such weak evidence for life after death will suffice to outweigh the mountain of strong evidence for the mortality of human consciousness?” (21).

Baggini admits that his arguments will not be persuasively conclusive for those bent on believing, since for many it only takes the mere logical possibility that there is life after death to justify either believing in it or withholding judgment.   He reminds us that logical possibilities like this exist for so many beliefs.  For example:

Tomorrow it will be revealed that you have lived all your life in a virtual reality machine; that aliens have been preparing for an invasion of Earth for the last hundred years; that the Pope is a robot; that the Apollo mission never made it to the moon and the whole landing was filmed in a studio; that the evangelical Christians were right all along and Judgment Day has arrived.  But the mere possibility that such things might be true is no reason to believe them.  Indeed, the fact that the evidence to date suggests strongly they are not true is good reason to disbelieve them. (22).

Is Atheism Dogmatic?

The author is concerned to emphasize that his position is not dogmatic, for he still believes in the defeasibility of his views—namely, that the possibility remains that he could be wrong.  After defining dogmatism as the belief that one’s position is indefeasible, and his own view as “firmly held belief” rather than dogmatism, he goes further to suggest that one must go beyond merely gesturing that one might be wrong, but must sincerely acknowledge this possibility.  This sincerity allows for a distinction between dogmatic atheism and un-dogmatic atheism.  Neither the theist position nor the atheist position can be proven, and thus absolute certainty is not a possibility.

Although absolute certainty is not possible for theism or atheism, for some reason (perhaps Plato he suggest) too many people think in black and white, all or nothing terms.  He bemoans the fact that people often think we are not justified in believing something unless we can be sure—if followed through to its logical conclusion, he argues, this would lead us to doubt everything we think we know.  All we need are good reasons to believe something.

I am as opposed to dogmatic atheism as anyone, and I am also opposed to dogmatic theism.  Indeed, it is my personal view that dogmatic views of any kind are in general more dangerous than the views themselves.  Intelligent atheists often have much more in common with undogmatic theists than one might suppose. (24 – 25)

Baggini makes explicit his reliance on inductive reasoning, a type of reasoning that doesn’t lead to absolute certainty, but generalizes from specific evidence.  He argues that everyone uses this type of reasoning every day so its legitimacy cannot be denied.  For example, we always rely on the principle of uniformity—that natural laws will continue to operate tomorrow the way they did the day before so that gravity, for example, will not suddenly stop holding you to the earth.  We don’t believe in this principle because it logically follows or is somehow logically necessary, yet we still strongly believe it because of our inductive reasoning.

We live in a world where everything is governed by natural laws and everything is explainable in terms of natural phenomenon.  Many things remain unexplained, but as the past has shown, as our knowledge increases about natural phenomenon naturalistic explanations continue to fill in the gaps—gaps that in many cases were previously filled with supernatural explanations.  It’s reasonable, then, to expect that supernatural explanations feed off of ignorance.  As Baggini puts it: “The class of unexplained phenomena therefore is unlikely to contain anything that will come to be explained by anything supernatural” (27).

Arguments from “Best Explanation”

In addition to the evidence of experience, Baggini adds a second argument he labels “abduction” or “argument to the best explanation” (27).  He admits that the criterion for judging whether one explanation of a phenomenon is “better” than another is not like a math problem because “there is no magic formula” for adjudicating between two explanatory hypothesis (28).  Nevertheless, he argues that “in general better explanations are simpler, more coherent … more comprehensive” and more testable than the alternatives (28).

Atheism is simpler because it posits only the natural world, not a natural and supernatural world where the supernatural world is by definition unobservable.  This extra dimension of the supernatural is thus less testable.  A naturalistic worldview is also more coherent for several reasons.  First, it fits the whole universe into one scheme of being rather than two, and when you have two it requires an explanation of how the natural and supernatural interact and co-exist.  Second, it better explains the phenomenon of world religions all contradicting each other.  The alternative would be to hold that only one (or a few maybe) are really true.

It’s no good saying that all religions are different paths to the same truth: the fact has to be accepted that religions flatly contradict one another, and if one were to focus simply on what all religions agree upon one would be left with very little indeed. (29)

Third, atheism better explains the existence of evil in the world—the religious explanation “requires rather a lot of sophistical reasoning” for explaining how a loving God would allow such terrible suffering and injustice.   Fourth, what best explains the dependency of consciousness of brain activity?  This makes perfect sense for a naturalist who doesn’t posit a non-material thinking soul that exists (somehow mysteriously) alongside brains and interacts with them—and further that “the dependencey of consciousness on brain activity miraculously disappears at death, when the soul lives on without the body” (30).

These are just a few examples, but in the big picture Baggini thinks naturalistic explanations are less problematic.

Is Atheism a Faith Position?

It’s often claimed that because atheism cannot “prove” their case to be true with absolute certainty on the basis of logic or science, atheism is just as much a “faith position” as theism.  But Baggini dispels this myth by showing that we must make a distinction between believing something because one thinks they have sufficient and strong evidence for believing it (even if it’s not conclusive), and accepting a belief without such evidence merely on the basis of faith.  Most of our beliefs we don’t have absolute proof for anyway, so to call all beliefs “faith positions” that cannot be proven absolutely (even if there is strong evidence for them) is very misleading.

The popular notion of religious faith includes the opposite element: believing in something on mere trust without first requiring evidence or logical argument.  For example, the Christian scripture teaches “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  Naturalism, according to Baggini, does not require one to believe anything that goes against available evidence, experience, or logic.  It only requires one to believe what there is strong evidence for believing.  Religious faith is “what supports beliefs that lack the ordinary support of evidence or argument” (33).  This is very different from atheist “faith,” and to call beliefs that are rationally justified based on strong available evidence “faith” is to rob the word of its meaning.

In my next post I will attempt to summarize the rest of his book before my final post, where I will offer my appraisal of his book and arguments.

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