Why Should an Atheist be Ethical?

  (19 May 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

Dr John Dickson, director of the conservative-evangelical Centre for Public Christianity, asks in an opinion piece on the ABC news site:

 

What is there in the atheist's perspective that can rationally inspire love and discourage hate?...  On what grounds can the atheist speak rationally of the high and equal value of the poor or the weak or the asylum seeker?

 

Most atheists in our society do choose love over hate, he acknowledges, but queries whether this choice is “anything more than a mere preference, a product of 'feelings' as atheist Bertrand Russell famously acknowledged”.

 

The agnostic Bishop Richard Holloway seems to confirm Dickson’s point. He begins with a quote from Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno:

 

'Man is perishing, that may be, but if it is nothingness that await us, let us perish resisting and let us so live that it will be an unjust fate.' I want people to live as though life had eternal meaning. Even if you don't believe in a God of unconditional love, choose to live as though there were.

 

Is ethical behaviour, though, a clear-cut case of rational Christian action and ‘mere preference’ for atheists?

 

If the Christian theist’s actions are influenced by the idea of a loving God – as Dickson’s article implies – why is that ‘rational’ rather than ‘emotional’? A desire to please God is logical if you have a fear of hell or desire for heaven, but otherwise surely it’s a product of ‘feelings’ just as much as Russell’s atheistic ethical actions.

 

The hope of cosmic superannuation might rationally inspire good behaviour, but I think even Dickson would find that an unpalatable motive.

 

Surely, too, there are ‘rational’ reasons for atheists to act morally: for example, a society that cares about the poor and disadvantaged and values human worth is logically likely to have lower rates of social alienation and therefore less crime.

 

This very question, the warrant for ethical behaviour in a post-Christian age, will be the theme of the 2010 National SoFiA Conference in Brisbane. Keep an eye on our main page for links to the details as they come to hand.

 

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