Evil and atheism

Well, that’s a heavy enough sounding title, isn’t it? I sometimes feel I should write more posts with titles like ‘7 Reasons Why Kittens Are Nice’, or ‘3 Tips for Baking the Perfect Apple Pie’. Everyone likes blog posts about cats and food, whereas those which focus on evil and atheism tend to upset people.

Anyway, yes, I’m an atheist. I think the idea of a benevolent God who cares for us and will wash away all sorrow is perfectly lovely, but unfortunately I just can’t persuade myself that the principle of “wouldn’t it be lovely if” is a sensible basis on which to think about fundamental questions. I’m an atheist because, despite millennia of looking, there is no evidence to suggest that God exists, and therefore no reason to propose that He does. It’s not a matter of asserting that God doesn’t exist, it’s a matter of noting that those who assert that He does have no evidence on which to base their assertion. That’s why atheism is not a belief – because it’s about discounting the erroneous assertions of others, not making assertions oneself. (The same goes for other varieties of belief in the supernatural, by the way – if it can’t be demonstrated via evidence, I discount it.)

That said, I’m the kind of atheist who doesn’t find atheism especially interesting. I’m the kind of atheist who recognises that many theists are kind and good people, and I’m also the kind of atheist who dislikes prejudice. For these reasons I tend to avoid the blanket condemnations of religious people that some – some – atheists indulge in; I prefer to judge every individual by their own actions and words, rather than make assumptions in advance about them. This doesn’t preclude me speaking out against religious ideas I disapprove of, or condemning religiously-motivated people who I perceive as doing harm, it just means I don’t assume in advance that I know what a particular individual thinks and believes just because they describe themselves as a Buddhist or a Zoroastrian. Apart from anything else, I’ve met too many contraception-using Catholics and gay-positive Muslims to accept that the religiously-minded are anything like as homogeneous as their leaders and detractors both like to pretend.

John Gray, though, is not a believer (which may make you wonder why I’ve just spent two paragraphs talking about atheism; all will become clear in due course).

He’s a political philosopher, and he’s as hostile to the idea of religion as he is to the idea of humanism, which he considers to be its legacy. It is his position (or seems to be – I should make it clear I have never read any of his academic work, and am relying on summaries) that humans have no inherent qualities of altruism or ethicality, and that the humanist conviction that humans can lead ‘good’ lives in the absence of God is a naïve fallacy. He was given a recent opportunity to rehearse this argument on the BBC, when he argued that The Talented Mr Ripley (which features an amoral murderer who kills without pleasure or scruple to advance his interests) was an accurate and prescient account of life in the post-religious – and, hence, post-ethical – age.

Although Gray is not himself a believer, it’s not hard to understand why this is music to the ears of some who are. “We must preserve religion,” their argument runs, “because a world without religion is a world in which evil runs amok.” This tends to be the backstop position of theists – the argument they deploy when they perceive they will be unable to persuade someone that God exists – since it’s an argument about the social utility of belief in God, not about the existence of God per se. It always sounds faintly desperate to me, as though the people who deploy it are arguing “Without religion we’ll all be murdered in our beds! Murdered!! In our beds!!! Is that what you want?! Well, is it!?!”

Personally, I do not find the argument convincing. To atheists, it’s transparently obvious that religion must have been invented by humans. It exists, it can’t have been invented by a non-existent God, and therefore the only remaining candidates are humans themselves. It follows that everything that exists within religion was created by humans, and that includes, clearly, the ethical principles that are enshrined within most religions, and within humanism. It’s also clearly the case that anything that humans have created once they can re-create; the independent re-creation of similar ethical principles within geographically diverse religious traditions is itself good evidence for this.

Gray seems to think that reality must perforce adapt itself to philosophy, and that the insistence that humanity is intrinsically amoral means that it is. And his argument implicitly relies on the assumption that religion is an external imposition: that it has been foisted on humans by something other than humans, that it contains ethical principles which are alien to us, and that we will one day reject them. This, of course, makes perfect sense to theists, who believe that religion is a gift from God, but it ought to be utterly nonsensical to any atheist who acknowledges that God Himself is an invention of humans.

It’s for these reasons that I take a different approach – instead of beginning with a theory, I begin with an observation. I observe that the ethical principles Gray disavows on behalf of all humans have been created by humans, in religion and elsewhere. From this observation I derive the conclusion that ethical principles are intrinsically human. I make no claim as to how or why humans came to develop this trait – the arguments about that will, I suspect, run and run. I simply observe that, since humans created them, they must be human.

Humanity is complex, of course, and contradictory. Simple observation may demonstrate that ethical principles are inherently human, but it also demonstrates that their precise opposite are also inherently human. Human beings are creatures who dreamt up the idea that life is sacred, and dreamt up and deployed technologies that enable mass killing. The fact that humans are capable of vice does not mean we are incapable of virtue, and the fact we are capable of virtue does not mean we are incapable of vice. It’s equally wrong-headed to insist that humanity is good or evil since, demonstrably, it is a mixture of the two.

This is why we should always beware reductive, abstract theorising about the nature of humanity, whether it comes from philosophers or priests. We should beware any statement which begins “Humanity is…” that doesn’t conclude with the words “irreducibly, contradictorily, human”.

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