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Review of Atheism, Morality, and Meaning (2005)

John L. Perkins


 Review: Michael Martin. 2003. Atheism, Morality, and Meaning. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 330 pp.

This article was originally published in the Australian Humanist No. 74 (Winter 2004), the quarterly publication of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. This version contains new editorial changes.

It is a popular notion in our society, still heavily influenced by a religious viewpoint, that atheism is conducive to immorality and that atheist lives are somehow devoid of "meaning." These concerns are often used by religionist proponents to disparage atheism and humanism and to piously promote the supposed virtues and advantages of theism. Michael Martin's book, "Atheism, Morality, and Meaning," is a valuable resource for humanists seeking an authoritative refutation of these common but fallacious theistic arguments.

Martin, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Boston University, has been engaged for some time in the task of defending atheism and exposing the shortcomings of religious ideologies, particularly of Christianity. The book is to some extent a restatement of some of his prior works in this area. It is sometimes difficult to provide rational arguments in response to arguments that are inherently based on irrational notions, but Martin addresses his task with meticulous care and attention. In doing so, he makes extensive use of logical syllogisms as a means of expressing his arguments and those of his opponents. While this may not appear to be a great literary device, it has the advantage of great clarity. To refute his arguments, theists will have to respond in like manner, a task which seems unlikely given its apparent logical impossibility.

Because of the nature of his task, the book does read in part like an anthology of philosophical and theological arguments, which he is seeking to lay to rest. As the title suggests, he discusses issues of morality and meaning from an atheist viewpoint, the first half of the book dealing with morality and the second with meaning. Each half is further divided into two parts: the first dealing with general theistic arguments, and the second with more specifically Christian arguments. While the book does have an overall continuity, it thus comprises four distinct parts, within which separate chapters deal with particular issues.

The central theme of theistic arguments about morality is that without a God to set rules and provide motivation for obedience, there can be no objective or effective morality, and that atheists are therefore devoid of morality. As is typical of many such arguments, they incorporate a theistic premise and arrive at a self-justifying conclusion. As Martin shows in such cases, the premise is faulty, but even if it was not, the conclusion does not follow. A basic dilemma theists face has been known since Socrates: Is what is good defined by what God commands, or does God command what he does because it is good? If it is the former, then some doctrine is required, apart from God's mere existence, in order to interpret what he supposedly has commanded. If it is the latter, then some independent criteria are required to determine what is good. The mere existence or nonexistence of God or gods, in itself, does not imply or provide any moral code.

As an alternative to religious doctrine, Martin puts forward, in the first part of the book, what he regards as an acceptable formulation of nonreligious morality. In this he relies first (like Adam Smith) on the theory of the ideal observer, a hypothetical entity that is, amongst other things, impartial and well-informed. Arbitration on what is good may be discerned by considering what such an entity may view with approval. After discussing various issues regarding this theory, he then introduces the method of wide reflective equilibrium, a procedure where moral decisions are made in the light of all available information, and where all issues and assumptions are considered and evaluated in the process of making moral decisions. Martin suggests that this is a procedure that the ideal observer may use, thus combining the two approaches to nontheistic ethics. The ideas he puts forward are sensible, but perhaps not convincing enough to attract the committed away from their enthrallment with theistic dogma.

In the second part of the book, which considers problems associated with theistic and Christian morality, Martin's arguments score more heavily. He briefly surveys the various arguments for the existence of God (or gods). After countless centuries of trying, theists have failed to produce any epistemically justified argument for the existence of any deity. Indeed, many supposed arguments have crumbled in the light of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, there are compelling arguments (such as those based on the existence of evil) that God (as usually envisaged) does not exist. But all religious morality presupposes this existence. Therefore, Martin concludes, all such morality fails because it is without epistemological foundation.

Martin then considers the nature of a theistically grounded morality generally known as divine command theory. The problem here is that even if God's existence is assumed, there is no valid epistemological basis by which we may determine the authenticity of the divine commands, as postulated by one religion, from those proposed by any other. A theistically grounded morality is thus liable to be arbitrary and absurd. Christians who propose following the life and teachings of Christ as a guide to morality are unfortunately no better off. The relevant teachings are riddled with inconsistencies and impossibilities, which Martin helpfully itemizes, again rendering such a moral system useless.

In the remaining two parts of the book, Martin explores the mysterious notion of the "meaning" of life, to which religionists proudly claim to have access, and which atheists supposedly lack. The "meaning of life" is really a trick question--one that is posed from a theological viewpoint and is contrived to evoke the need for a theological answer. The meaning of "life" can be explained in biological terms as a state of existence of organisms prior to death, but this is not the type of "meaning" to which theists refer. As Martin explains, the underlying assumption is that human life has a "purpose meaning" and a "value meaning," terms he defines usefully. Briefly, life has a purpose meaning if and only if it has a purpose that is significant, satisfying, attainable, and plausible. It has a value meaning if and only if it has value for the person living it.

Having established these parameters, Martin then investigates what religious proponents are talking about when they compare their "meaningful" lives to atheists' supposedly meaningless ones. It turns out that they assume that without a "cosmic purpose," defined in religious terms, there can be no other purpose. Martin can easily show that, in the case of atheists, this is untrue. On the contrary, it is actually the theists, whose beliefs lack epistemological basis, whose lives lack real meaning. Martin then goes on to debunk a range of theological arguments, especially the Christian notion of atonement, which is the idea that the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus has somehow saved the world from sin. Putting the implausible and unsubstantiated nature of these claims aside, he asks: Doesn't the idea of atonement render the whole concept of divine rewards and punishments on the basis of our behavior arbitrary and redundant? When he considers the arguments of some Christian apologists as to whether the atonement has relevance for extraterrestrial beings, he allows himself some comic irony: "Unfortunately one must wait for interstellar space exploration to verify the hypothesis that extraterrestrial creatures have been blessed with divine incarnations" (p. 284).

The depressing thing about the prevalence of the theistic worldview, however, is that it causes a massive diversion away from values that, if respected, would have real benefit to humanity. In his conclusion, Martin notes that he has not attempted, but has left it to others, to propose a system of nonreligious normative ethics. This could be interpreted as a weakness in the book, leaving open the charge that atheists have not yet provided a motivation for, or a coherent definition of, a system of humanist ethics. Yet this may not be such a difficult task. Immanuel Kant, while proposing a theistic ethic, perhaps provided a clue as to how this could be done. His idea was that there is a "categorical imperative" to act only on principles that everyone could consistently adopt. This suggests an ethical system based on principles that are universally acceptable. In The Ethics of Science: An Introduction (Routledge, 1998), David Resnik has put forward a set of principles such as honesty, benevolence, justice, autonomy, and utility that form the basis of a comprehensive set of such universal principles (op. cit., 22).

The motivation specified for such a system need not rely on nonsense fears of eternal damnation, but rather something immediate--the golden rule. Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Martin mentions this only in passing, as a "prudential" motivation. However, a two year old child is able to learn that certain actions, when reciprocated by others, cause unpleasant sensations. The rule provides an effective general constraint on undesirable social behavior, and not only in our own species. Why should it not be postulated, with reference to a range of principles, as the motivation behind a universal morality? As a method of implementation, and of choice between conflicting principles, reflective equilibrium as described by Martin, may then be used to derive a morality that is, as he terms it, "objective in the sense of being justified by impartial reasons and arguments" (p. 137). However, this conjecture is colored by my training as an economist, which might be driving me to construe morality as a multi-variable optimization problem. For an authoritative philosophical defense of atheism and a refutation of theistic dogma, Martin's book is to be recommended.

Copyright ©2005 John L. Perkins and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.