Immoral atheism?

It is disappointing to see a Christian fulfill what I would have thought was a tired stereotype: asserting that a rival belief or argument is ultimately based on immorality. Aside from being a conversation-stopper, in today’s world it seems to exude the bunker mentality of a subculture that does not want to sincerely engage with the world around it. Jim Spiegel has written a short article in Christianity Today that implies “New Atheists” are atheists because they cannot overcome their irrational passions. He even goes so far as to suggest that unbelief might be best fought by traditional family values, a conclusion derived from another scholar who claims that many prominent atheists in history had what amount to father issues.

Between the Reformation and the Enlightenment in Europe atheism was generally thought to be the product of immoral and irreligious practices. If you held unorthodox beliefs it was widely believed that this was caused by a sensual desire to live as one pleased, reaching back to the primordial sin of Adam’s pride. Francis Bacon, for example, begins his essay “Of Atheisme”  (1598) with an exegesis of Psalm 14:1, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.” Bacon interpreted the Psalm as saying that an atheist denied God in his heart, and not in his mind, because he wished to live as he pleased, not because he had intellectual reasons to deny God’s existence. After all, if the atheist turned to nature and investigated it rationally, Bacon insisted that he must conclude that an omnipotent being created and now sustained the natural world. The exact same exegetical approach was taken in hundreds of texts in the early modern period. And Jim Spiegel uses the same verse to promote his book, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality leads to Unbelief, and insists that atheists adopt unbelief because of the non-rational pull of the passions.

The argument that unbelievers and atheists were incapable of virtue was one that died hard in European cultureit was a scandal when Pierre Bayle suggested (1682, Pensées diverses sur le comète de 1680) that an atheist could be virtuous and that a society of atheists could exist. It wouldn’t be until the late nineteenth century that an avowed atheist by the name of Charles Bradlaugh could sit as a Member of Parliament in Britain. Americans still report that they desire politicians with traditional religious values as their representatives, which seems to suggest that politicians who do not believe in a traditional God are somehow untrustworthy or incapable of serving as political representatives because of their unbelief.

When Christians argue that atheists are atheists because of an underlying immorality they seem to be positing a simple relationship between belief and practice that has long since been rejected. At least the return of virtue ethics, perhaps most famously associated with the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, has given a philosophically sophisticated account of the relationship between practice and belief in a way that does not reduce the question to an oversimplifiednot to say patently falsealternative between morality and immorality. Whatever one makes of MacIntyre’s project, he saw the need to give an account for how the connection between belief and practice was undermined in submitting the Enlightenment philosophy of David Hume, whom he perceived to represent that separation, to philosophical criticism, building upon philosophy’s history. In other words, MacIntyre recognizes that we cannot make an argument today about the relationship between belief and practice without accounting for the history of that relationship’s conception.

Put simply, there is no going back. There can be no pre-critical, “naive” argument about belief and practicelinking unbelief to immoralitythat simply ignores the work of modern critical philosophy and its history. We cannot settle for seemingly neat solutionsin this case dismissalsin place of critical thinking; nor can we accept terms of debate that end dialogue rather than foster it. Again, even if you do not agree with MacIntyre, at least his position is taken critically and is articulated in such a way that it actually opens itself up to be contested in a rational way. Arguing that atheism is the product of immorality as Spiegel does is a shallow way of short-cutting the work of actually engaging with the arguments of others, especially those with alternative beliefs, on sincere terms. If we cannot convince a partner in dialogue of our position, we cannot maintain today that another position is wrong simply because we find it to be “non-rational.” This would seem to be all the more true given the fact that what one person calls non-rational, another calls conviction.

As Christians when we flatten dialogue into a stale debate we only contribute to the work of enclosure, of sealing up our ears so that we can no longer hear any divergent voice, let alone the Voice that we faithfully presume speaks to us. In order to have ears to hear, and eyes to see, we must be vigilant against all forms of distortion, including the distortion of philosophical simplification and prejudice, of silencing those we disagree with under the false banner of irrationality and immorality.

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