This was originally posted in reply to a blogger who felt that lack of belief in the Creator leads to immorality. Luckily, having just read a couple of chapters in TGD, as recommended to me by Randy from the TNA, my response was ready-made.
I keep an open mind to the possibility that God might exist, but overwhelming evidence suggests that the probability is vanishingly small. Until I’m provided with falsifiable testable predictions and peer-reviewed evidence, I may just continue on with my current assumption, which I feel is the only honest assumption I can make.
My main objective here is to defend Atheism as something that does not automatically lead to moral relativism. The definition of Atheism is just the lack of belief in a Theistic God. The word Atheism does not suggest any specific moral code. You can be a bad atheist or a good atheist. You can be a bad guy with a moustache or a good guy with a mustache. I passionately feel that lack of belief in a Theistic God will not be of any danger to the individual’s moral codes. It may in fact lead to him being morally superior to the Theist as belief in god often comes with static, absolutist immoral proscriptions. It also opens up avenues for rational Universalist frameworks like Utilitarianism where reason can be used to navigate the complex waters of modern ethical behaviour.
Q1: There is plenty of evidence out there that Darwin was very racist.
Darwin’s personal moral character is not relevant to whether or not his science is correct. Evolution is no longer just Darwin’s alone. Countless scientists have tested, verified, modified and built upon his theory in the 300 hundred years since then, especially in the last 50 years with the discovery and analysis of DNA and genetic biology. Atheists don’t consider Darwin to be a prophet or moral guide. Most of us just think he’s one of the heroes of science (along with Newton and Einstein) who’ve contributed most to scientific progress.
Was he actually a racist? By today’s standards everyone was racist in his era, including Lincoln. Darwin was more liberal than most of his contemporaries. He strongly opposed slavery when most of his compatriots didn’t. Some biographers have even gone so far as to suggest his motivations for seeing through the development of this theory was to silence the pseudo-scientific rationale that was bandied around in favour of Caucasian supremacy and the racial subjugation of ‘lesser races’.
Q2: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong were all three atheists. Their governmental regimes killed 100 million combined. It was Stalin who said “1 death is a tragedy, 1 million is a statistic.”
Was Hitler Atheist? There is evidence to suggest he was not. In the Mein Kampf Hitler writes “I be the leader of the nation so that he could lead back his homeland into the Reich.” sank down on my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favour of having been permitted to live in such a time.” There he was referring to his reaction when the First World War was announced. He also wrote “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew. I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” He repeated this statement to the Reichstag in a speech in 1938. Rudolf Hess, his close friend, calls Hitler a “good Catholic”. After his annexation of Austria in November 1938 he says “I believe it was God’s will to send a boy from here into the Reich, to let him grow up and to raise him to be a the leader of the nation so that he could lead back his homeland to the Reich.”
It’s true that he could have been lying about his faith to gain votes and support from the largely Christian public and military. Some of his speeches after 1940 suggest that this might be so. Though he still believed in providence and God he started railing against Christianity. He was obviously not above lying to his people. After all, he is Hitler.
But that leads to the crucial point; the people who carried out his orders, those who actually killed the Jews and allowed the holocaust to happen, the soldiers and generals and citizens of Germany were all pre-dominantly Christian. If Hitler lied about his faith then he was only doing so to encourage and motivate the faithful. Can you imagine an atheist wanting to discriminate against a race of people? The motivation posited for the extermination of the Jews comes from a long European Christian tradition or blaming the Jews for their saviour’s death. Hitler utilised this to terrible effect.
Stalin definitely was Atheist, but he didn’t do his evil in the name of Atheism. He never mentioned Atheism as a motivation for killing people; he did not spur up the Atheistic mob anger to do his killings. He did it for the dogma of Communism and his personal thirst for power. Atheism doesn’t tell you to suppress others and their thoughts. Communism does.
Atheist individuals can be evil, just like religious individuals; but it takes religion and political dogma to make good individuals do evil things.
Q3: Darwin was convinced that eventually the dominant species would win out. Therefore, it seems to me that the whole of evolution is based on the idea that there is inequality. Therefore, it would be contrary to the best purposes of evolution to have a system of morality.
Hitler’s so called ‘Social Darwinism” was pseudo scientific prattle, nothing to do with the scientific theory of evolution. Very much like the pseudo scientific nonsense espoused by Hindus and New Agers to justify their unjustifiable beliefs.
In evolution it is the gene that seeks to survive by replicating and being selfish. The organism itself cannot be considered the basic unit of biological evolution simply because it cannot replicate exactly. To illustrate, my dog will eventually die and cannot clone itself or give birth to an exact copy. So there is no point for the dog itself to be selfish if it weren’t for competition that is occurring at the genetic level. The genes of the dog on the hand will replicate and live on in progeny. The genes of the dog compete in a pool of similarly self-replicating genes. From the perspective of the gene, the organism is merely its expression, a mode of supporting its survival and multiplication.
An organism that is powerful physically and obtains resources at the expense of others will increase the chances of its genes replicating. But this is only the most primitive of tactics.
Most animals live in social structures that help them survive much better than they would in solitary. This requires co-operation and altruism. Being altruistic to your children is the most obvious example, but it extends further. Bees, ants, meerkats, woodpeckers, mole rats look after their younger siblings. This kind of altruism favours genetic kin (linked story is about the debate between kin altruism and group altruism. I think it shows the scientific method in practice, where scientists are pleased when their long-held views are challenged).
The other kind of altruism is reciprocal. Flowers provide bees with nectar in exchange for pollinating. Hyenas hunt in packs and share their kill. Honeyguides search for bee hives and then lead ratels to the hive. Ratels break the hive and share the spoils. Honeyguides do not have the strength to break the hive and ratels (a type of badger) do not have wings to search for them. But together they accomplish their goal.
Humans are at a completely different league when it comes to social structure and we have developed instinctual morality and reason that makes it almost incomparable to what is going on in the rest of nature.
The altruism towards kin is of course very evident. And there is also altruism for the group, similar to that exhibited by individual bees in a colony. For many years we were loyal to our own tribes and hostile to external tribes as we competed for resources. As our social structures grew larger we started cooperating with external tribes and then other civilisations of tribes.
We develop punishments to punish those who don’t reciprocate; we seek out dependably altruistic mates, and friends. We try to be as altruistic as possible and cultivate a reputation for dependability.
Most of this happens on a subconscious level, we just feel fulfilled when we are useful to others and have friends who you can depend on. We crave social affirmation. It is our evolutionary instincts that are telling us social behaviour is desirable, just like it tells the ratel to follow the enticing flight of the honeyguide.
So genes are always selfish but the organism, the human, can be genuinely altruistic. He wants his society to survive, he wants his family and friends to do well, and over the course of human civilisation his feelings of goodwill extends over greater circles of association.
Yes selfish instincts, group loyalty and such that are given to us through evolution, but that is most certainly not nearly the whole picture.
Understanding that the well-being of individual and the well-being of society are driven by evolutionary forces will allow us to use reason to decide on which of our instincts to follow in complex situations. Selection pressures only result in rules of thumb, biological evolution is far outpaced by social evolution. It takes reason to apply our broad evolutionary instincts to specific moral problems.