Is Atheist Morality an Oxymoron? Philosopher Joel Marks Gives Up on Right and Wrong

I find philosopher Joel Marks’s recent flat-out rejection of morality disarming in its honesty.

Here’s Joel Marks:

The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ (see Issue 78) are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

Marks is pretty clear here: to be a hard atheist—and not a soft one—its time to let go, not just of free will, but morality.

John Calvin, meet Friedrich Nietzsche.

But why does Marks fly his atheism to so bleak and nihilistic an intellectual moon? Is it really an unavoidable conclusion?

Here’s Marks again:

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. . . . But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort?

So this is Marks’s first main reason for rejecting morality: religion and morality simply cannot be separated, and he’s an atheist. But what’s Marks’s second main reason for rejecting morality?

That, it turns out, is Charles Darwin:

Note the analogy to Darwinism. It used to be a standard argument for God’s existence that the obvious and abundant design of the universe, as manifested particularly in the elegant fit of organisms to their environments, indicated the existence of a divine designer. Now we know that biological evolution can account for this fit perfectly without recourse to God. Hence, no Designer, no Design; there is only the appearance of design in nature (excepting such artifacts as beaver dams, bird nests, and architects’ blueprints). Just so, there are no moral commands but only the appearance of them, which can be explained by selection (by the natural environment, culture, family, etc.) of behavior and motives (‘moral intuitions’ or ‘conscience’) that best promote survival of the organism. There need be no recourse to Morality any more than to God to account for these phenomena.

In other words, just as Charles Darwin taught us that there can be an appearance of design without the mental powers of a designer behind it, so evolutionary psychology teaches us that there can be an appearance of morality without any ghostly spiritual power of Love really driving it. This is, obviously, a position based in reductionism: the engines of cooperative survival are working beneath the surface; loving moral impulses and behaviors are just the resulting epiphenomena.  Love is real to us, and may seem determinative, but it actually lacks causal power. Its manifestation in the world, and the energies that sustain it, belong to genetic, environmental, and cultural forces.

Take truth-telling as an example. What might sustain truth-telling in a hard atheist, and make it desirable? Here’s Marks again:

A reputation for truth-telling will likely make one a more attractive person to do (literal or figurative) business with, which will enable one to thrive relative to one’s less scrupulous competitors. Thus, ‘survival of the fittest’ could naturally promote honesty as a prevalent trait even in the absence of any moral concern.

But this is precisely where I think Marks falls off the rails. If we are atheists or agnostics (as I am) we don’t tell the truth for any of these utilitarian reasons. It’s not what sustains the impulse. What sustains the impulse is an idea—the idea that truth is beautiful. One cannot live on reductionism alone; one must be captivated toward moral behavior by either words that arrest the heart or by some sort of vision—a beatific vision. Dante Aligheiri, for example, at the age of eight, was first awakened to love, and subsequently submitted his life to it, after a chance sighting of a nine-year-old female named Beatrice. As Dante writes toward the beginning of his La Vita Nuova:

The moment I saw her I say in all truth that the vital spirit, which dwells in the inmost depths of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt the vibrations alarmingly in all my pulses, even the weakest of them. As it trembled, it uttered these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominatbitur mihi  [Behold a god more powerful than I who comes to rule over me (i.e. Love)]. . . . From then on indeed Love ruled over my soul, which was thus wedded to him early in life, and he began to acquire such assurance and mastery over me, owing to the power which my imagination gave him, that I was obliged to fulfill all his wishes perfectly.

That’s the moral impulse: slavery to one’s beloved; to fulfill love’s imperatives and wishes without limit, perfectly. And it was at the age of eight that Dante discovered what it means to be, not a calculating utilitarian, but a surrendered devotee under the spell of Love’s mystery. Under Beatrice’s power, Dante was seized and oriented. He knew what to do. Without some sort of sustaining beatific vision—a North Star—love and morality reduce to a shifting calculus, which is no love or morality at all. But here’s the good news for atheists: that North Star can be Love, or some Beatrice or another. You needn’t call it the Abrahamic God. Other things can command your heart. There are lots of idols in the world, and you can arrange moral lives around devotion to them. 

Here’s another way to think about this: memory, imagination, and morality are intimately linked. One must remember and imaginatively reconstruct what brought you to a moral crossroads—a hard choice—in the first place. A lifelong recollection of Beatrice might do the trick; a general recollection that honesty is good policy for social animals is far less likely to do so.

Think of Sophocles’s play, Antigone. The great dilemma that Antigone faces is this: will she obey King Creon’s command that her brother’s dead body be left to the birds and dogs on a battlefield outside of the city? Or will she go by evening and bury him nonetheless? It is her heart forged memories, her love, and her imaginatively forged constructions of what it means to honor her brother that compel her moral choice and action, not a Darwinian calculus.

And so what energizes our moral designs really is something ghostly and ethereal in us: it is a contingent object of attention, either immediate or present to memory, constructed by imagination, grounded in some sort of vision or idea, and it has seized our hearts. It has a power to move us as our highest value. And Joel Marks, in his own atheist manifesto for amorality, whether he realizes it or not, has arrived at this Dantean destination as well. He writes, for example, that “I was blissfully unaware of the horrors of factory farming until only a few years ago,” but, apparently being captured by vivid descriptions, facts, and images surrounding animal abuse, he’s now morally oriented toward a desire to end animal cruelty:

But if I were conversing with another amoralist, how would I convince her of the rightness of my desires? Well, of course, I wouldn’t even try, since neither of us believes in right, or wrong. What I could do is take her through the same considerations that have moved me to my position and hope that her heartstrings were tuned in harmony with mine. . . . For example, we may both be averse to animal suffering and cruelty to animals. But even within the same society, there can be large differences in knowledge.

Heartstrings and knowledge, or love and gnosis. On the subject of animal cruelty, Marks wants to infect others; he wants to place before the intellect and senses things that compel attention and evoke (he hopes) deeply personal and contingent desires.

But is this not precisely Dante’s route to possession by Love?

And notice that Marks says he wants “heartstrings tuned in harmony to mine.” He would like to see others experience his moral vision of a world absent animal cruelty and see it made an object for moral organization. The beatific vision that has arrested his imagination wants recollection, imitation, multiplication, expression, lights, cameras, action.  

In other words, if Marks can share what he knows about animal cruelty with you—the images, the facts, the ideas that have moved his mind and heart—maybe the light of this knowledge will inflame you as well. This is atheist amorality that has come full circle, back to the very heart of morality itself: the ability to comprehend, remember, imaginatively inhabit, and feel the calling of the good, the true, the beautiful. It is, by attention to something particular, turning the otherwise chaotic universe into a cosmos and walking in the shoes (or hooves) of other beings. Marks’s amoral atheist alternative to theism—he calls it desirism—is not really amoral at all. It is Danteism: a chance encounter with Love that compels us to come; to orient to a vision of beauty or an outrage at an ugliness. It is to make of that orientation a cosmos, a new idea of order, as in Wallace Stevens’s poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West.” In Stevens’s poem a woman walks a beach singing, and this, being brought to our attention, changes everything. We are beguiled and compelled to follow:

For she was the maker of the song she sang.

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea

Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.

Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew

It was the spirit that we sought and knew

That we should ask this often as she sang.

How did Stevens and the others know what to do (and what they would do) in response to this vision? They just knew. Like the apostles with Jesus, this was it—the moment to drop nets and follow. Still another poet, John Keats, sharing an intuition akin to Dante’s and Wallace Stevens’s, famously wrote this:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.  

Morality qua morality lies here, atheist or otherwise.

Below is an image of Antigone functioning as the eyes for her blind father, Oedipus (based on a scene from Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus ). Why would anybody do this, letting one’s life be taken over by the needs of an old and poor blind man?

Oh yeah. It’s her father. And the very sight of him stirs her heart. She loves him. There are people or things you’ll go to the ends of the earth for. Beneath every moral act lurks such a visceral homage to some particular beauty or another, for every moralist is also an artist. The objects of love and art are contingent, compelling, and rarely utilitarian. Moral concern, atheist or theist, has always been idolatrous; it is energized by the making of idols and coming under the spell of them. This is true of all great love and art.

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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Is Atheist Morality an Oxymoron? Philosopher Joel Marks Gives Up on Right and Wrong

  1. Mike says:

    Good critique. You are just missing the final step where the knowledge of what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy is stamped on your heart by God. I look at your argument leaving out God the same way you see his argument leaving out morality –it is logically consistent with your stated beliefs, but betrays the truth you believe and act upon.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Mike,

    What’s 1 John 4:7-8 again?

    Are you sure I completely absented God out of the post? Isn’t that the ontological mystery—love’s source?

    Light entered the olive, and it was oil, wrote the poet James Merrill. Let (s)he who has ears to hear . . .

    http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poems-James-Merrill/dp/037570941X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1287558231&sr=8-2

    —Santi

    • Mike says:

      1 John 4:7-8 is great, but keep going for the rest of the chapter! 1 John 4:15 says “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” I am just encouraging you to take that next step… Acknowledge Jesus is the Son of God, and the God of love will live inside of you.

      God is ready to answer all of the questions you have. This one passage promises you that 9 times:

      “Ask and it will be given to you (#1); seek and you will find (#2); knock and the door will be opened to you (#3). For everyone who asks receives (#4); he who seeks finds (#5); and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (#6). Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone (#7)? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake (#8)? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (#9)” Matthew 7:7-11

      I think God is serious about that!

  3. This post sums up what I’ve still never been able to get away from in considering morality. It seems that if there is no God, then we’ve just invented morality (via evolution, perhaps). Hence, good is not really good. It’s just what we’ve collectively decided.

    “But this is precisely where I think Marks falls off the rails. If we are atheists or agnostics (as I am) we don’t tell the truth for any of these utilitarian reasons. It’s not what sustains the impulse. What sustains the impulse is an idea—the idea that truth is beautiful.”

    I agree that this is how morality feels. However, I think it’s still not enough. If we are just a random group of chemicals, then there is no true right or wrong, no matter how we feel. An idea or feeling that truth is beautiful is still only an idea.

    I did an undergraduate paper on this and couldn’t find any atheist who could argue beyond this point. Maybe I haven’t found them yet.

    I’m not a moral relativist yet- but that’s only because I hope there *might* be a g-d behind it all.

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

    • JCR says:

      @spritzophrenic –

      I guess I generally agree with you that there is no universal right or wrong. Right and wrong stem from what is best for the species. I do not see truth as a beauty, but as an essential component for advancement of the species and for effective group action.

      I realize that some will try to twist this into an idea that as an atheist I then support anything today considered immoral if it can be shown to advance the species. This is actually a much harder exercise than the cursory idea indicates, although all the areas that are gray today continue to be gray.

      • You’re right JCR, believing that there is only “invented” right and wrong does not mean atheists are bad or promote immorality.

        However, if I truly believed that right and wrong are only inventions, I wouldn’t feel compelled to act right in all circumstances. This may be just me, but there are probably others who would come to the same conclusion.

        I am not sure how to believe in “amorality” and always act morally. I want to act consistently with my beliefs.

  4. JCR says:

    I feel as though there are some deeper philosophical concepts that you (Santi) & Marks are alluding to that I just do not understand. Here is what baffles me. Marks points out that morality as we see it is a construct of evolution and survival of the fittest. I absolutely agree with this concept. But I do not get the crux of what you both view as a problem – that there may be the “appearance” of morality without their being a “hostly spiritual power of love really driving it.”

    I do not get the connection. The common concepts of morality are the same across the world. Why does their need to be a spiritual power driving it? the tenets of morality were a VERY large contributor to man’s advancement from hunter gatherers to farmers to industrialized people and everything in between. A simple analysis of the basic tenets show us how they contribute to man’s advancement – no individual can accomplish what groups can accomplish. And for individuals to function effectively as part of a group, there needs to be a contractual basis of interaction and expectations. Obviously, evolutionary psychology goes far deeper, but I think I have summed up the high level.

    What relevance does a higher power hold at all? I do not see why you think we tell the truth because “the idea that truth is beautiful.” Their is clearly an individualistic aspect of this, where different people tell the truth for different reasons. But generally, people tell the truth because it is part of the contract for functioning within a group.

  5. Pingback: The Source of All Morality « Prometheus Unbound

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