The Jury Talks Back

11/24/2008

Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fritz @ 11:50 am

Richard John Neuhaus writes

The question is asked whether atheists can be good citizens. I do not want to keep you in suspense. I would very much like to answer the question in the affirmative. It seems the decent and tolerant thing to do. But before we can answer the question posed, we should first determine what is meant by atheism. And, second, we must inquire more closely into what is required of a good citizen.

Before commenting, please read the rest of the article at First Things.

32 Comments

  1. Richard Neuhaus needs to go back 2,000 years and learn his Plato before even talking of Nietzsche.

    In order to be a follower of faith, one must conclude that it would be a good thing to do so. Otherwise, are you bowing down to circular, simple power such that “God is good” simply means – “whatever God wills is good?” If you make the decision to become a follower of a given religion, are you not using your own moral judgment to do so? If you do, and I would argue that you are morally obligated to do so, then you are your own moral compass. Not by choice, but by necessity. So Richard’s attempt to make all non-believers immoral falls to the wayside – it doesn’t even make sense.
    That observation of Plato’s is used by Bertrand Russell to push it one step further and say that religious people then have “not an ethic based on theology, but a theology based on their ethic.”

    Comment by Psyberian — 11/24/2008 @ 6:44 pm

  2. This is a question that I have also considered. It seems to me that ultimately morality must be based on the concept of absolutes. While there certainly are atheists who are moral, conceptually I find this difficult. Without a belief in some form of absolutes, all morality is situational. Ultimately morality would devolve into a situational ethics; a cost-benefit analysis, so to speak.

    Religion, in some form or the other, requires an externally derived set of behaviors which are not negotiable. While I have not come to any clear conclusions, it certainly seems that Citizenship, in the sense the article mentions, had to be related to morality and absolutes.

    Comment by Dr T — 11/24/2008 @ 8:25 pm

  3. I tried to read the rest of the article, but it was deadly. Atheism is really very simple, and he makes it all seem so complicated. I think “philosophy” like this is useless, and virtually meaningless.

    Comment by LTEC — 11/24/2008 @ 8:33 pm

  4. I tried to read the rest of the article, but it was deadly.

    Over your head?

    Comment by Subotai — 11/24/2008 @ 8:50 pm

  5. Rather ironically, in an essay which mainly devoted to criticizing relativism and deconstructionist philosophy, he attempts to deconstruct the term atheism and impose a new meaning (may I say, his truth) on the word.
    He seems to be saying that any view of the world other than the classic Christian view is a form of atheism, despite his nods to Judaism, Islam and 18th century Deism (and why belief in God requires one to have a Christology is beyond this God-believing Jew).
    Unless he means that a moral relativist is an atheist, even if he sincerely believes in a specific religion, because of the lack of belief in an absolute Truth. In which case he would have been better off to simply call his essay “Can Moral Relativists Be Good Citizens?” and leave the poor atheists out of it.

    Comment by kishnevi — 11/24/2008 @ 8:52 pm

  6. I don’t see that.

    He seems to be saying that any view of the world other than the classic Christian view is a form of atheism, despite his nods to Judaism, Islam and 18th century Deism

    Can you explain how you arrived at that conclusion? I thought he went out of his way to include any and all religions on one side vs non-believers on the other.

    Unless he means that a moral relativist is an atheist, even if he sincerely believes in a specific religion, because of the lack of belief in an absolute Truth.

    Eh? Which Western religion does not include belief in an absolute Truth as an integral part?

    Comment by Subotai — 11/24/2008 @ 9:48 pm

  7. I read the entire article and it meshes with my own beliefs. First of all, religion appears to be in our genetic makeup; we all have belief systems separate from our rational experiences with the world. To me, being a good citizen means acknowledging a higher power than man. It means humility and aspiration. If mankind is the be-all and end-all, what reason do we have to exercise free will, stand up to our responsibilities, develop good moral character, and raise the next generation to do the same? Believing we are the be-all is nihilistic.

    I also believe in good and evil. I have seen both many times. There can be no good and evil in atheism, however you define it. I know good atheists (left and right) but the struggle to be a good citizen for me has to do with advancing our better natures, not just giving in to our worse ones. It is the triumph of character over human nature via exercising free will, not via government force or censorship. When we do good of our own free will, we are positive moral actors, good citizens, and we are (whether we accept it or not) acknowledging a power greater than ourselves. Whether we call it God or not, it is the opposite of atheism. I do accept theism as defined by Locke and Russell and as demonstrated by our Founding Fathers.

    Comment by Peg C. — 11/25/2008 @ 4:41 am

  8. But can a person who does not acknowledge that he is accountable to a truth higher than the self, external to the self, really be trusted? Locke and Rousseau, among many other worthies, thought not.

    The proposition that a person who does not believe in a truth higher than the self cannot be trusted is asserted and not proven; nothing is offered to back it up besides an appeal to authority.

    Comment by aphrael — 11/25/2008 @ 8:51 am

  9. If there is anything more pitiful than someone trying to justify his faith, it is someone trying to justify his faith by demeaning those who do not share it.

    Comment by nk — 11/25/2008 @ 11:40 am

  10. Luke 18:9-14

    [9] To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: [10] “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11] The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. [12] I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

    Comment by nk — 11/25/2008 @ 11:47 am

  11. Your first question in comment 6–go back and read the part about “Christology”. He seems to be asserting that any theism worth its salt must have a Christology–which rules out any religion other than Christianity. Unless under the rubric of Christology you can include the Jewish/Moslem view that Jesus wasn’t–and that would of course also be the atheist view.
    Your second question–think not of the classical orthodox Western religions but of Oriental religion and modern pluralism, which is quite at home among “liberal” religious thinkers.

    Comment by kishnevi — 11/25/2008 @ 1:56 pm

  12. There can be no good and evil in atheism, however you define it.

    Why not?

    Comment by jpe — 11/25/2008 @ 2:05 pm

  13. read the part about “Christology”. He seems to be asserting that any theism worth its salt must have a Christology

    Well, you’re simply wrong here. He mentions “Christology” exactly once, early in the essay, in reference to another persons discussion of Nietsche in which that other person first employs the term. You make it sound like he’s hanging the whole argument on that. That’s poor reading.

    “Liberal religious thinkers” is an oxymoron.

    Comment by Subotai — 11/25/2008 @ 2:55 pm

  14. The proposition that a person who does not believe in a truth higher than the self cannot be trusted is asserted and not proven

    As is the notion that atheists are necessarily moral relativist. It’s just baldly asserted, despite being contrary to reason and radically contrary to the evidence.

    Comment by jpe — 11/25/2008 @ 2:58 pm

  15. The proposition that a person who does not believe in a truth higher than the self cannot be trusted is asserted and not proven; nothing is offered to back it up besides an appeal to authority.

    What, as opposed to your carefully reasoned arguments?

    Comment by Subotai — 11/25/2008 @ 3:00 pm

  16. Subotai: I’m not making an argument. I’m merely pointing out that the argument offered consists of an assertion followed by an appeal to authority, and noting that I’m not convinced by such.

    Comment by aphrael — 11/25/2008 @ 3:03 pm

  17. Two obvious problems with the article: (1) the author of the piece confuses epistemological constructivism w/ moral relativism. The former doesn’t entail the latter, and, notably, the author doesn’t even try to show that it does. (2) The author fails to note that the Euthyphro problem: those that act solely in accordance with divine law are not acting morally. The only true morality is that which is done for the sake of morality. The upshot is that theists are not moral; they merely obey commands.

    Comment by jpe — 11/25/2008 @ 4:25 pm

  18. aphrael, all government, which is to say all moral argument, is an appeal to authority. So you’re not refuting anything by noting that fact.

    Comment by Subotai — 11/25/2008 @ 4:32 pm

  19. All moral argument is an appeal to authority?

    I find that implausible. :) But it does, I think, highlight a big difference between liberal and conservative thought. :)

    Comment by aphrael — 11/25/2008 @ 4:35 pm

  20. aphrael, all government, which is to say all moral argument, is an appeal to authority.

    Sounds like a typical theist to me: “do X or you’re goin’ to hell!”

    Comment by jpe — 11/25/2008 @ 4:39 pm

  21. A good citizen is one who follows the law and contributes tax dollars.

    Any dip shit can do that, god or not.

    Comment by Da'Shiznit — 11/25/2008 @ 5:30 pm

  22. We’re all atheists to some greater or lesser extent. I’m a a-Zeus-ist, for example. Mormons are great people; I’m not buying what Joseph Smith is selling. You get the picture.

    Fair enough.

    There are atheists, however, who make the claim that any religious belief is wrong. It’s not just that I don’t believe in your god, it’s that I can’t possibly believe in any god because there is no good reason to believe in god. There’s something about the very nature of god claims that make them fundamentally wrong. For some, it goes even further: god claims aren’t even wrong, they’re nonsensical.

    Fair enough.

    But here’s the rub: the Declaration of Independence (DOI) makes certain claims regarding the nature of human rights. It doesn’t seem to me that someone who holds the maximalist position regarding atheism (that god-claims are not just wrong, but always wrong, and not merely wrong, but nonsensical) would at the same time be able to consistently hold that they accept as true (for all people in all times to the extent that you can justify killing other people in order to enforce their dictates) the claims of self-evidence as laid out in the DOI.

    A maximalist atheist cannot hold as true the claims made by the DOI.
    Ability to defend as true the claims made by the DOI is necessary (though probably not sufficient) to be a good citizen of the United States of America.
    An atheist cannot be a good citizen of the United States of America.

    EDITED TO ADD: I recognize that the Declarationist position, that the DOI animates or somehow informs our understanding the Constitution, is problematic.

    Comment by Fritz — 11/25/2008 @ 7:46 pm

  23. This article is not really about atheists, but about whether certain deep forms of moral and epistemological scepticism or irrationalism carve one out of “good” citizenship (as opposed to merely lawful citizenship). The problem is that these forms of scepticism can be as consistent with faith as with rejection of faith; you can believe that all talk about God is without rational meaning, and then take that Kierkegaardian leap of faith to whatever makes you feel good.

    The funny thing about the article is that the case it proves is that any person with deep sceptical or irrationalistic views can’t be a “good” citizen irrespective of their belief or disbelief in God.

    It’s been pointed out many times that denial of God is as much an act of faith as belief in God. Once you make the decision that one can accept either position and then combine it with moral and epistemological scepticism, you have written the formula for complete breakdown of any concept of citizenship, as there is no possibility of persuasion or reason in the political process; everything then comes down to class, region, tribe, or adventitious selection of religious beliefs.

    The atheism of “unreason” is as dangerous to successful citizenship, and thus democracy, as the religion of “unreason”. So yeah, certain types of atheists cannot be good citizens, and certain kinds of believers cannot as well.

    The real question is, which is more dangerous, The irrational atheists, or the irrational religious fanatics? It’s tempting to point to the last century and say the atheists, i.e. Marxist-Leninists, but the problem is that Commies are the opposite of irrationalists–they were hyper-rationalists, but got the economics and sociology wrong. The record for religious irrationalism is much bloodier than atheistic irrationalism, because without some kind of outside organizing principle like Pushtanwali or ethnicity, irrational atheism leads to random political beliefs that cannot coalesce into organized political action of any kind.

    Anyway, that was a great topic, albeit one probably not consistent with this site.

    Comment by Cyrus Sanai — 11/25/2008 @ 8:09 pm

  24. Ability to defend as true the claims made by the DOI is necessary (though probably not sufficient) to be a good citizen of the United States of America.

    Since when? The essence of being an American citizen is that you can think what you want and believe what you want, and nobody can impose his thoughts and beliefs on you.

    Comment by nk — 11/25/2008 @ 8:20 pm

  25. A better case can be made that no religious person can be a good citizen because he is torn between his loyalty to his country and his devotion to his Great Bearded Legend. You know … “no man can serve two masters”, etc..

    Comment by nk — 11/25/2008 @ 8:23 pm

  26. The record for religious irrationalism is much bloodier than atheistic irrationalism

    I don’t think that the historical record bears that out.

    irrational atheism leads to random political beliefs that cannot coalesce into organized political action of any kind

    That’s not obvious at all. It assumes that irrational behavior cannot grip large masses of people. Again, history says otherwise. I could make a strong case that both WWI and WWII were examples. And viewed from an atheists perspective, most of human existence has been based on an irrational belief in religion.

    Comment by Subotai — 11/25/2008 @ 8:26 pm

  27. A better case can be made that no religious person can be a good citizen because he is torn between his loyalty to his country and his devotion to his Great Bearded Legend.

    A person who attributes religious significance to his country is not considered a good citizen, in the Western republican understanding of the term. A healthy citizen is one who gives to God and Ceasar what each one is due. Conflating the two leads to unpleasant results.

    Comment by Subotai — 11/25/2008 @ 8:30 pm

  28. The essence of being an American citizen is that you can think what you want and believe what you want

    I have to disagree with you there. Thoughts and beliefs are tightly bound to actions. And certain thoughts, beliefs, and actions are not compatible with being American. For instance, the belief that America stole its land from your Aztlan ancestors and that it’s your duty to take it back.

    Comment by Subotai — 11/25/2008 @ 8:33 pm

  29. A healthy citizen is one who gives to God and Ceasar what each one is due. Conflating the two leads to unpleasant results.

    I agree but apparently Mr. Neuhaus does not.

    Comment by nk — 11/26/2008 @ 4:47 am

  30. Subotai #28,

    That is the almost paradoxical uniqueness of America. That bad citizens are Americans too.

    Comment by nk — 11/26/2008 @ 4:50 am

  31. #26

    In terms of long term persistence and destructiveness, I think the record does bear it out the greater evil of religious irrationalistm, assuming you exclude Marxism, which is not irrationalism, but rationalism gone wrong. I can’t think of any major war, revolution, pogrom, etc. that was motivated to any extent by atheistic irrationalists. The reason, again, is that it is very hard to pull such people into coherent movements, because they doubt everything.

    Comment by Cyrus Sanai — 12/5/2008 @ 6:00 pm

  32. Comment by Cyrus Sanai — 12/5/2008 @ 6:00 pm

    Aren’t you contra-posing atheism and agnosticism?
    The atheist knows there is no God,
    the agnostic is just unsure either way.

    Marxism is atheistic, in that it denies the existence of God, and replaces that belief with the belief in Scientific-Socialism.

    Comment by Another Drew — 12/6/2008 @ 12:28 pm

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