by Seon Lewis
Coming out as an atheist was a hard step for me. There is, as I understand it, no other Grenadians out there professing to such position. Why did I do it? I did it because I felt it was the right thing to do. Not just for myself, but in hopes that by taking this action will inspired more of us to come out. As I mentioned in my book Apostate! No More Bazoodee: A Grenadian Quest to Think outside the Box (2015), my goal was to help build a space where we can feel safe to express ourselves and respectfully challenge long held cherished views. I am pleased that there are other atheists Grenadians breaking through their fear and boldly stepping into the forefront.
With that said, let’s move to the concerns of this essay. I was indeed excited to come across an essay on NOW Grenada in which the author affirmed his atheism. Assuming the author is Grenadian, more of us should be stepping out from the closet. The essay is entitled “The Superiority of Atheist Morality,” in which there are a number of issues worth addressing.
Allow me to start with the essay’s title, which I think is very misleading. Does atheism have a morality? What is this morality and is it superior? Not only does the title suggest that, the author affirmatively declared that this is certainly the case. “Perhaps the best support that the morality of atheism is superior is religion itself,” the author writes. But, is that so? It seems to me the author either does not understand or chooses to neglect the complexity of the concept of morality.
Morality has to do with society and socializing. It is defined as the ability to distinguish between rights and wrongs. The concept of morality, however, is much more complex than is implied by the definition. There are usually two perspectives from which morality is defined. It is sometimes defined in a descriptive sense, where it is defined as a code of conduct put forth by society or a group, as to what is right or wrong. And from a normative sense, which, given the condition, would be accepted by rational agents. In other words, it asks the question: how should people act? The problem is that neither one of these perspectives captures the true meaning of morality independently. Why is that so? Not all codes put forth by a group or by a society are moral codes, neither are all codes accepted by moral agents as moral codes in the normative sense. These realities highlight the complexities involved in understanding the concept of morality.
From the essay, it seems that the author adopted the descriptive sense of morality. However, from an atheist perspective, there are no codes of conduct out there that can be labeled as atheist codes of conduct, neither are there any that can be labeled as religious. No one owns morality. Morality, as I point out in my book, “is a human endeavor. It has no supernatural dimension,” (Lewis, 2015). It is an evolutionary process, through which we develop our sense of right and wrong based on rules we internalized and collectively accept, as a means to create collective harmony. The author is mistaken in suggesting the there is an “atheist morality,” which is somehow “superior.”
The author writes that “when one thinks of atheist morality, one usually gets the impression that atheism is all about “anything goes”. Well, as an atheist, I can tell you that this is true”. I must say that, as an atheist, I am confused at this statement. I am aware that one reason many people harbors hatred and/or dislike towards atheists is because they believe (or are led to believe) that atheism equates to “anything goes” morality. That is, atheism is the acceptance of nihilism. In other words, atheism rejects God and religion, and to do that is to reject morality. This, of course, suggests morality comes from God and religion. This, the author is not arguing.
What then does the author means by “anything goes?” He or she cautioned us that “it is not about “anything goes at the same time.” Through the essay, the author points to past human actions, which was once accepted as being morally good, but today is no longer accepted as such, as reason to support his or her point? Here it seems that the author is speaking about the change in human behaviors over time as being geared towards creating a better social society. The author is then arguing that morality is an evolutionary process.
The author also seems to be arguing another point, where, I believe, he or she descends deeper into the absurd. This comes through the author’s discussion on the reason why Western slavery was abolished. He or she writes that, “The primary reason why slavery, which was very much “right” in centuries past, is so wrong today has nothing to do with “morality” as most of us understand the term. It has everything to do with economics – or the workability of the institution. This is pure atheism.”
It is true that there is an ongoing argument that cites economic reasons for the abolition of slavery. This argument was put forth by Eric Williams in his book Capitalism and Slavery (1994), in which he argues that the abolition of slavery coincided with a decline in European economics, especially the British economics. If it is true that the abolition of slavery was based purely on economic reasons, which I believe has some creditability, then both religious and non-religious people were culpable in supporting this “pure atheism,” since people from both sides were instrumental in fighting against the ugly slave system. I am not arguing that there weren’t people interested in economic reasons for abolition slavery, but to argue that there were no morality concerns involved is absurd. There were many non-believers and believers who were fighting against this horrible system on ethical and moral grounds.
The argument the author seems to be making, we can conclude, is that atheism or “pure atheism,” as he or she refers to it, is the adaptation of behavioral positions simply because they are workable to economic institutions. The end of slavery, he or she said, has nothing to do with morality. Thus, “atheist morality,” according to the author, evolves simply for economic expediency.
As I have demonstrated above, there is no such thing as an “atheist morality.” And indeed, there are many atheists who, as every other human being, are in the business of improving themselves economically. This has nothing to do with morality; despite one should be acting in an ethical and moral way through all one’s endeavors. As I have pointed out in my book (Lewis, 2015), neither believers nor atheists are likely to be more immoral than the other. However, from an atheist position, to allow one’s decision making to be controlled by an outside agent is to lend oneself to be coerced. That is, one can be lead to act in ways contrary to the human good. Accepting the self as the rational agent in determining one’s ethical and moral stance is to assume responsibility for one’s own actions. This is not “anything goes” morality.
Finally, I also think there is an issue with the author’s idea of a perfect world. The author’s certainty that we are living in a perfect world seems also absurd, I believe. To make such a claim is to be knowledgeable of what makes for an imperfect world; a comparison must be made. In fact, as an atheist, the imperfection of our world, as the author seems to agree does exists, is what pushes me to strive to be a better human being. If atheists believe our world is perfect, why then are there countless of non-theists and atheists groups and organizations working to help make this world a better place?
Indeed, I applaud the author for coming forward and making his or her voice heard. I, however, disagree with the author’s characterization of the ethics and morality of atheists, which he or she seems to bundle into one pile. There are atheist who are sexists, racist, classicists, etc., and there are atheists who are none of these things. We are regular people living the human experience, like everyone else. The author should be aware that atheism is not a belief system. It is not a body of doctrine, dogma nor does it have a body of moral code, from which atheists draw to shape their worldview. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in God/Gods. This is the only thing that binds atheists together.
Seon Lewis is a member of the Black Humanist Alliance, and the author of the book Apostate! No More Bazoodee: A Grenadian Quest to Think Outside the Box.