Simon Blackburns Ethics, A Very Short Introduction identifies seven threats to the field of philosophical inquiry know as Ethics. First among these threats is the death of God. What is meant by this term is that for a considerable portion of human history, the question of what was considered “ethical” or “moral” was answered by turning to religious scripture. It follows then, that for those who turn to God or the gods for answers to dilemmas of an ethical nature, the death of such an entity would present a most vexing problem. Without this divine keystone, the entire arch of their morality would crumble under the compounding pressures of everyday life. But not for Blackburn, and certainly not for me.
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As it was mentioned previously, Blackburn placed the death of God as the first of seven threats to ethics. But to read beyond what a moron in a hurry would interpret as his true meaning reveals that the death of god was placed as the first threat to underscore the argument he makes that while superficially, godlessness may be seen as undermining ethics, in actuality it does much to act as a catalyst for a new beginning in the field of ethics. Blackburn sees the death of god as a positive thing, buttressing his claim by saying that “Plato tells us that the ethical laws cannot be arbitrary whims of personalized gods. Maybe instead we can make our own laws” (Blackburn 16). Blackburn proposes that humanity would be better served making our own ethics rather than following the booming edicts of a capricious, anthropomorphized, invisible sky-daddy. Thusly, it follows that God’s death is in fact cause for celebration and represents a false threat to ethical inquiry. However, this celebration may have to be postponed, for if God’s death is the false threat, what then is the real one? The real threat that ethics face from this front is not Shiva’s wrath, Zeus’s lightning or Yahweh’s Judgment. Rather it comes from those who believe in the reality of the aforementioned. It was Voltaire who said it best, when he wrote that “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” This threat, the threat religion poses to not only ethics, but humanity as a whole, is best defeated by claiming and defending the assertion that atheism offers a human basis of ethics and morality with greater potential to satisfy those who it was designed to serve, namely us.
This position is not without precedent, and it was Socrates who first applied logic to the religious convictions of his fellow Greeks (particularly the ethical conviction that morals must be followed because it is what the religious figure commands) and showed them to be not only conceptually confused but built on a shifting foundation. While avoiding his fate, his footsteps are ones that many have followed. I would like to mention at this point that I am not merely making use of “God” of popular, modern, Western Judeo-Christian tradition (Though any religious references will most likely be to this conception of God, as it is most familiar to both author and audience). Rather, I mean to say that moral atheism offers a superior alternative to (among countless others) Jesus, Anubis, Baal, Izanami, Zeus, Vishnu, and Quetzalcoatl.
As mentioned previously by Socrates, the rejection of divine command lies at the heart of moral atheism. Here I argue that following a command to behave ethically is not in itself ethical behavior, but rather obedience that results in a pantomime of true ethical behavior. Secular humanism in turn, offers a morality that is thought out, argued and reasoned. By having a moral basis in secular humanism, atheism possesses a distinct advantage. This is because, this ethical base, standing as it is, outside whatever religion it happens to find itself near, can look at what is being commanded by divine authority in a way that allows it to more easily evaluate the command itself. This superiority then allows atheists the ability to look at the command, say perhaps, the arbitrary violence of Ezekiel 9:4-7 where the God of that religion commands his (as George Carlin once said, “God must be a man, no woman could or would ever screw things up so badly) followers:
“Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark … fill the courts with the slain: go ye forth. And they went forth, and slew in the city.”
Once the command is looked at, presumably with horror, it is the moral atheist who is more inclined to reject the actions as unethical because they have already been able to find the command immoral.
I would like to draw to a close by offering a quick concession to the theists out there. Many of the world’s religions hold out the promise of redemption, the hope that if a human being has violated morality in such a way that no amends are possible, many of the world’s gods have the ability of mercy or forgiveness (often conflated, they are similar put not the same). This is something that atheism does not afford. The logical consequence of this is that an individual is forced to make choices with the knowledge that each and every single one of those choices is adding up to the only value they can ever hope to have in their life. To write this, does not, as the theist may assume, fill the author with a sense of crushing insignificance and nihilism. Rather, it is a great feeling of importance, the weight of each choice is not that of a burden. It is finding the human condition from the moral atheist position to be one were decency, morality and ethics arise without the expectation of punishment or rewards. With one life to live, what choice do we as a species have but accept that and exult in it. God is dead. Long live us.
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