I found an Interesting discussion on the blog Puritan’s Sword. Rather than an inane, emotional discussion “from the heart”, the Christian owner of the blog has engaged a couple of atheist guests in a debate that at least attempts to be reasoned. My favorite atheist guest there so far is “Jody” with her charming short story on using the bible to consider child murder. The original post was in January, but it’s not obvious to me how old the comments are, so the discussion thread may be quite cold now.
Nonetheless, the blog owner “Bob” at one point responds to Jody that while the Golden Rule may have predated Christianity (and presumably he means Judeo-Christian theology), it was arbitrary and had no grounding until recognition of an absolute moral foundation such that an existent God brings. I thought that was at least a newer rebuttal to the ethics-must-originate-from-God-no-they-predated-it argument.
As an intellectual argument, atheism is at a disadvantage here. Strictly speaking, atheism is the lack of belief in a deity: a-theism. So an atheist isn’t, per se, a belief but only a rejection of a set of beliefs. Indeed, once you’re past the we-reject-supernatural-hocus-pocus aspect, atheism ends. It is not an ideology or ethical foundation. As an atheist you are free to build up from a blank slate to form whatever ethical structure works. Most modern atheists focus on science and rigorous philosophical study to establish a set of beliefs, but a secular ethical foundation is fairly scattered across various atheists. So, from the other side, the theists point of view, atheists lack an ethical structure. We don’t necessarily, but we aren’t mandated one either. There is a book I haven’t read for some time called Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen, but I don’t recall a direct rebuttal to this point, though he allows possibilities for various belief systems.
Ergo, atheists are, at first, amoral. That is, since atheist is only AGAINST something, it remains to be said what an atheist is FOR. This is complicated in that it is anarchy. Since atheism is a blank slate, by definition, we individually are free to choose independent moral codes, should we even choose one. Atheistic groups such as Secular Humanists do attempt to build up a new belief system from the belief void of atheism, but we are labeled as atheists not as humanists.
Now I have a fairly strong sense of right and wrong. Whether I argue them from habit and custom, from intellectual consideration, or simple social contract, I wouldn’t describe myself as amoral nor would most people I think that know me. Yet, I have no basis on which to say another atheist does have a moral code. I am not troubled by this because I expect that, like me, other atheists are not JUST atheists: we bring other dimensions and conclusions to the table.
In short, is the notion of a golden rule arbitrary and without intellectual basis if it doesn’t have an axiomatic basis such as theistic belief?