Why don’t atheists kill? October 17, 2009Posted by Ian in Morality.
Wow it has been a chaotic last 2 months! This post has been in the back of my mind since I got back from my trip and that was a long time ago – a lot longer than I thought actually!
In this post I want to address one of the common arguments about morality against the atheistic position.
One common argument against an atheistic position is the idea that without some external source of moral judgements there should be no morality. It is not unheard of for people to say they would kill if it wasn’t for religion but more relevantly theists often claim that without some external set of rules, there shouldn’t be any reason not to murder (or replace murder with any “bad” thing you like).
There is a significant problem with this which is that it assumes murder is the default action and that not doing it is somehow actively moral. I don’t think this notion of default actions can be justified and this takes down the entire argument in one sweep.
Murdering someone is a deliberate action which requires a decision. In any society that we know of, murdering another member of that society for no reason has generally been frowned on so it is not a free action either – to murder someone is to deliberately accept the risk of consequences. The action also takes effort – most people don’t just sit idly by while you try and murder them – so it isn’t something you could ever do lightly even divorced from moral decision making.
Now we know murders do happen so now we need to ask what it would take to overcome these difficulties and actually do it. Obviously it requires that something else outweighs the perceived consequences of the murder. That something else could be some sort of emotional push or it could be an external pressure. Atheists are often accused of not believing in anything so it would seem counterproductive to then claim they are more likely to murder.
In fact it is this that sits behind Weinberg’s more forceful phrasing of the idea:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.
Religious people, all else being equal, are surely more likely to murder than atheists for no other reason than they have additional motivations that could potentially push them over the barriers to murder that atheists do not have. I say this not as a slight against religion but as an point against the moral argument put forward at the start of this post.
In order for the original argument to stand theists need to somehow demonstrate that, all else being equal, atheists have more motivation to murder than theists. I don’t think this can be done but I think a small case can be made that the exact opposite is true.