08/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Do Atheists Borrow Religion's Morality?

Does morality come from religion or is it merely "the language games of one's time"? Are the most basic moral boundaries we evolved that make life easier and less chaotic a reflection of the character of God? If there is no God, or if He doesn't care about us, then our common morality is still the result of practical, reality-based needs, which also "teach" that a good life depends on the "Do unto others..." ethic.

Richard Dawkins calls himself a "cultural Christian," which for him is an unusually frank acknowledgment of the fact that the "viral infection" of religion may be comforting. Indeed, as the BBC reported in December 2007:

Prof. Dawkins, who has frequently spoken out against creationism and religious fundamentalism, [said], "I'm not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions. This is historically a Christian country. I'm a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims. So, yes, I like singing carols along with everybody else. I'm not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history."

As I discuss in my forthcoming book-- Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism) -- ew atheists are willing to admit that they're borrowing ethical and aesthetic cultural traditions from religion while others, like atheist philosopher Richard Rorty and ethicist Peter Singer, have tried to avoid all assumptions of religious moral norms in their writing. Most atheists cop out, as did Sam Harris in his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith, topping his slam on religion with a helping of sophomoric, religious-sounding whine. To paraphrase: I know we all need meaning. So hey, how about we embrace a sort of secularized Eastern mysticism to help get us through the night, you know, being that hard-edged secular Truth is, well, absolutely true and all, but it hurts our feelings, being as it's sort of like, you know, depressing.

What Harris doesn't do is reexamine his atheistic ideas based on the fact that if he's right (and in a raw, pure and absolutist form atheism is unpalatable to most people), then that might be an indication that there is something to all this "religion stuff" besides the temporary emotional analgesic he describes. Maybe, if wanting meaning is the way people are, and we are part of nature, then those feelings--however they express themselves--might indicate something true about the reality of nature and the way it actually is, rather than just signaling an emotional need for religious therapy.

Or, as author and brilliant writer on evolutionary psychology Robert Wright puts it in his new book The Evolution of God, "If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe -- conceivably -- the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity."

The Problem with an "Invented Vocabulary" of Morality

As I said, one atheist who tried to bite the bullet in a way that Harris lacked the testicular fortitude to do was Richard Rorty. Rorty argued that we make up morality. He believed that bright people are "ironists" who understand that we know nothing except our own "vocabularies." He said that morality is merely "the language games of one's time."

Rorty was the grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, a theologian, Baptist minister, and leader in what was called the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So Rorty's nihilism is nihilism with a twist of religious awareness. Rorty is clear about his legacy from the Social Gospel/theological liberalism of his grandfather. Maybe that's why he brings a bare-knuckle honesty to his work that, by comparison, makes Harris seem positively wimpy. In Rorty and his Critics, Rorty writes:

The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire "American liberal establishment" is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point... [W]e do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank... So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. I am just as provincial as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.

Rorty was honest enough to admit that he had problems with selling his idea of an individually invented moral vocabulary because no society raises children "to make them continually dubious," as he said. So he wrote that "ironists" like himself should keep their views secret or at least separate their "public and private vocabularies." In other words, Rorty admitted that his ideas had to be lied about in order to succeed, because the way people actually are does not correspond to his stark atheist philosophy.

Then there is Princeton professor, atheist, and bioethicist Peter Singer. Singer also tried to invent an ethic with no nostalgic nod to religion, especially not toward Judaism or Christianity's sanctity-of-life beliefs. He has said that some defective children should be destroyed during a trial period after their births. Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues in his Practical Ethics, (2nd edition, 1993) that newborns lack the characteristics of personhood ("rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness") and that therefore "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living." In Germany, his positions have been compared to the Nazis, and his lectures have been disrupted all over the world by groups representing the handicapped.

According to my friend Angela Creager (one of Singer's colleagues and a professor of the history of science at Princeton), Singer is a kind man moved by compassion. Nevertheless, he seems not to understand how his ideas strike others; for instance, as evidenced by his protesters, people with disabilities. Singer gets upset when commentators compare his proposals to Nazism, because his family lost people in the Holocaust. Singer's objections don't seem reasonable to me.

As Michael Burleigh, a leading historian of the Third Reich, has pointed out in a commentary on Singer's work, eliminating defectives in pre-Nazi Germany was exactly what opened the door to the Holocaust. In his book Confronting the Nazi Past, Burleigh writes, "Singer omits to mention that one of the essential elements of [Nazi] propaganda was the denial of personality to their victims." He adds that Singer is "displaying remarkable naiveté" when he suggests that the choices that would have to be made in evaluating a prospective defective for elimination would be in trustworthy hands if doctors were in charge. Burleigh notes that the Nazi euthanasia program was led by scientists and psychiatrists, people drawn from the best-educated and most "civilized" ranks of a sophisticated secular medical class not too different from the academic class Singer himself belongs to.

Atheists say that morality isn't derived only from religion. I think they're right. But they seem to have problems when deciding the limits of what is permissible under the rules of their "invented vocabulary" of morality à la Rorty and Singer. Maybe the point is that religion is derived from morality.

I'm guessing that morality predates religion. We all act as if that's the case. We don't have long theological debates about, say, incest or wife abuse as though the jury is still out on what is wrong or that our sense of the matter depends on Bible verses. We evolved ideas that make life easier and less chaotic, as in: I don't want to be clubbed in my sleep so let's all agree that clubbing people in their sleep is wrong! Those ideas, including parents not taking kindly to "experts" telling them what they should do about their "defective" child, might be a reflection of the character of God. If there is no God, or if He doesn't care about us, then our common morality is still the result of practical, reality-based needs, which also "teach" that a good life depends on the "Do unto others..." ethic. Either way, morality is a lot more than an individual's invented vocabulary, and Singer's ethic seems monstrous to many people for the same reason that George W. Bush's torturing prisoners in the name of national security was a threat to us all.

I Want My Attorney and My Wife to Believe in God

How individuals are treated affects everyone. Ideas such as Singer's and George W. Bush's have consequences. There may indeed be babies born who'd be "better off" killed, or prisoners who "deserve" to be waterboarded or punched and exposed to hunger, cold, and snarling dogs. But the rest of us aren't better off when morality becomes a function of expediency, be that in the name of national security or of "sensibly" getting rid of the need for all those expensive ramps for the disabled by getting rid of the disabled themselves at birth.

Who decides who's next? Do you trust an academic ethicist like Singer to make life-and-death judgments when he's so far removed from reality that he gets hurt feelings when his seminars are picketed by people in wheelchairs (the very sorts of human beings that Singer says might have been better off being killed at birth)? Should a Darth Vader figure like former Vice President Dick Cheney be kept handy to decide when torture is "okay"? Is national security worth preserving if it entails turning our country into a police state?

Do atheists really believe that morality doesn't exist just because it can't be put under a microscope? Do any atheists claim that (and, far more tellingly, live as though) moral propositions have no objective value? If Singer finds himself on a planet where disabled people are the norm and he is a minority of one, will he gladly entrust himself to a panel of experts to decide his fate as, in that context, an "abnormal" person? If Rorty had not been paid the royalties generated by the sale of his books, would he have failed to take his publishers to court had his editor argued that in the "invented moral vocabulary" of publishing, they'd just changed the rules of accounting? For that matter, when Singer gets his feelings hurt by outraged disabled people who compare him to the Nazis, isn't that a tacit admission that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat people, including Australian ethicist/Princeton professors who feel that their benign intentions are being misrepresented?

And what if the New Atheist agenda succeeded beyond Dawkins and his followers' wildest dreams? Would everything work out perfectly? For instance, what would happen to the environmentalist movement? The appeal of the environmentalist movement is handily compatible with the idea of stewardship. Maybe that appeal works because a sense of stewardship and a sense of the sacred in Nature are intrinsic to our natures, a part of the divine revelation we are gradually developing a capacity to experience. Watch any TV program on the wonders of life on Earth. Even if there is no religious content, the tone is reverential and a sense of the sacred permeates the hushed narration. Why?

A lot more motivation can be inspired by maintaining that one may do God's will by conserving the earth than by telling people that their lives mean nothing in an ultimate sense, that they are slaves to their genes, conditioning, and evolutionary quirks -- but, oh, by the way, they should sacrifice their comforts to save the planet for equally meaningless and deluded future gene rations that they'll never meet. Or, as atheist apologist, Princeton University professor, and molecular biologist Lee M. Silver writes (in Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontier of Life) about the question of life having meaning and therefore a point: "I have yet to hear a good answer, other than there is no point."

Now that will really fire people up to make sacrifices!

It seems to me the New Atheists have it wrong. If you deprive people of the solace of faith in a moral system of meaningful connection with something bigger than themselves, and bigger than mere connection to many other "meaningless" people, you aren't just stripping away window dressing, but demolishing the supporting structure of a happy life. As I said, I think that Harris tacitly admits this by appending his squishy ending to his otherwise hard-nosed book. Atheists, too, depend on some form of spirituality for happiness. Why else do you think that Dawkins' zeal can only be described as religious, and his followers as disciples? Maybe it's because the need for meaning won't be denied, even by people who gather to do just that.

Even one of the most church-hating fathers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, to whom Christianity was an "infamy," found the influence of faith, and of Christianity in particular, useful: "I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God," he wrote, because "then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often."

My beef with the New Atheists and with religious fundamentalists is that their ideas just don't seem aesthetically pleasing or imbued with the poetry that I experience in real life. Ideas about life are too small. Life trumps description, just as what some severely disabled people actually grow up to do and be trumps sage theories on whose life is "worthy to be lived."

Is Dawkins correct when he says religious people appeal to mystery as a cop-out? Are unnamed things meaningless? Do we have to understand something in order to experience it? I don't think so.

This essay first appeared on Religion Dispatches. Sign up for the free RD newsletter here

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism)