Two mistaken notions of two atheists about morality

 

Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart

By Bayer and Figdor

Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, 178 pages

ISBN 978-1-4422-3679-0

Cost: $27.69

While the authors of this easy to read book on atheism reject the idea that there is a God and that the Ten Commandments were divinely revealed, they maintain that people can learn what is true and what is false and how to act properly by using their intelligence, and people can derive the humane principles of the Ten Commandments and other proper acts through reason. Their approach is to “update” the biblical commands by listing what they call Ten Non-Commandments. Instead of being revealed from on high, these Non-Commands are built from the bottom up through good reasoning and evidence. The first four reveal how a person thinks, the fifth is the axiom that God does not exist, and the remaining five are principles that will aid people in making right choices.

The authors’ methodologies and conclusions (with the possible axiom that God does not exist) are mostly rational and sensible, but I have problems with some statements and their conclusion. My thinking parallels that of Moses Maimonides (1138-1204). His basic thought about the use of the intellect and about morality are in chapter one and two, respectively, of his “Guide of the Perplexed.”

One problem with the book is their constant use of the words “belief” and “moral.” I think that using these words cloud their thoughts. The authors use “belief” to mean an idea that a person accepts. I would substitute “idea” or another word that indicates what the person is thinking. The term “belief” indicates an idea that a person accepts based on “faith” or “tradition,” and is an idea that cannot be proved by the senses, science, and reason. “Belief” is a concept that belongs in the religious, not the atheist or rationalistic field. Similarly, “morals” are a system of behavior that varies from time to time and place to place that are developed for people who are unable to use their intelligence to decide how to act. As the authors recognize, a truly intelligent person does not rely on “morality.” Instead, as the authors contend, an intelligent person acts based on well-thought-out reason. But this disagreement about words is a mere quibble. I have a more serious problem with the book.

The author’s Ten Non-Commandments are in essence:

People must first recognize that there is a world outside that “is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief.” (I would suggest saying this in an even stronger fashion: Humans search for the truth, and truth is what is real: what are the facts about the world.) They go on to say that people “perceive the world only through our human senses” as well as rational thought, both of which must be provable. (I would add: and through studying the laws of nature, and that humans have a duty to study the laws of nature.)

In the remaining five non-commands that focus on behavior, the authors state (correctly, in my view) that there is no universal morality and concepts of morality change. They then give us a principle to helps people decide what the proper behavior is: “We act morally when the happiness of others make us happy.”

I do not think this is a good guide. For example in the nineteenth century in Salem, the masses thought that witches exist and should be hung. In twentieth century Germany the masses killed Jews. These acts made individuals and the general population happy, but they were wrong behaviors. Proper behavior should not be based on the thinking of the multitude. The proper guide for people is to improve themselves and society by a thorough understanding of the laws of nature, science, and history, and make decisions using their learning and intelligence and a careful consideration of all facts and the thinking of the minority of wise people.

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