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Atheists' Musings on Morality Lightweight
“The use of moral language presumes a standard, another reality apart from the physical world. And it's not sufficient to offer the reply that morality evolved…”

In his recent look at the case for evolution in The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Richard Dawkins ponders why an evolutionary explanation took so long to arrive.

...for understanding evolution, the notion that perfection of some sort exists trips us up.

He surmises maybe it was due to what he labels religious indoctrination. Or perhaps the mismatch between our short lifespan and the immensity of natural history's timeline.

Tempting as these explanations are for Dawkins, he instead places the blame elsewhere – on the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, and his notion that what our eyes observe are mere imitations of a more real world, one which exists apart from our physical one.

For example, we call a painting beautiful but conceive that beauty exists as a more perfect concept "out there," apart from any physical limitations. Problematically, for understanding evolution, the notion that perfection of some sort exists trips us up.

Quoting from Ernst Mayr's work, Dawkins gives the example of rabbits. If we treat rabbits akin to a mathematical formula – perfect "rabbitness" is possible – we will find it difficult to accept evolution. Such imagining of perfection, Dawkins writes, "regards any change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit."

As he points out, this is opposite the evolutionary view of life, where descendants depart from the ancestral form and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.

In other words, the point in science is not to imagine perfect "rabbitness," or perfect anything else; it is to accept that the physical world varies and evolves. To imagine perfection as desirable or possible misses real-world messiness, including our evolutionary history.

So what has this to do, this Easter day, with religion? Plenty. Religion by its nature asserts the existence of another realm beyond our physical world.

Dawkins would argue this belief, this imagining of another reality, is what lands us in trouble, and not just for understanding evolution but for life. Insofar as men and women try to live up to a code they think delivered by God, they might ignore the world they can see – the real and only one according to the atheist.

In extreme conceptions of another reality – my example here, not his – think of theocratic states such as Calvin's Geneva or Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist approach to Islam; there, human beings are allowed few foibles.

They are instead forced to live in obedience to extreme dictates, conceived of as following the perfection imagined in this other, spiritual world, the one created by God.

Dawkins is persuasive as an observer. His analysis of why evolution took so long to appear as an explanation is convincing. His understated belief (in this book) in how thoughts of another realm can provoke extremism in this one is also not far off the mark, though that applies not just to some on the extremes of religious communities; atheistic Marxists spent the 20th century forcing entire populations into their imagined ideal.

But Dawkins creates a trap on another level. Atheist disbelief in another realm doesn't help defend morality in general or give atheists or anyone else a clue as to how to determine wrong and right.

Faith traditions, obviously, have less of a problem here on specifics. For example, in another new book, The Bishop or the King, written by an Anglican priest and a friend, Ron Corcoran describes how and why he left the Anglican Church of Canada. He simply couldn't agree to where the Anglican communion was heading on gay marriage.

For those outside of any faith, or even within faith depending on one's views, such specific debates over morality are not problematic.

The Platonic ideal here – believe in a book inspired by God and how it forbids homosexual acts – can be dismissed as artificial. The created injunction ignores the real world – some people are gay.

So that approach works, most days, in a society committed to pluralism and separation of church and state. But it doesn't work on a deeper, more general level, not for someone who asserts no other realm exists, Platonic or divine, and yet uses the language of good and evil.

The use of moral language presumes a standard, another reality apart from the physical world. And it's not sufficient to offer the reply that morality evolved, or that human beings are hardwired for co-operation, or that morality is a reflection of our need for self-preservation.

Those are only descriptions of morality's journey, not justification for the use of the language of good and evil; not if the terms are meant to be more hefty than transitory, more consequential than just a passing dependency on one's own bias or culture.

I'm not claiming atheists cannot be moral. Or that one should believe in God, or because without that, our moral language is unsupportable. Or even that atheists shouldn't use such language.

My observation is simply that despite his other insights, when Dawkins uses the language of morality, it carries little weight.

The language of morality used by an atheist is as artificial as the very realm which Dawkins claims is only in our imagination.

Mark Milke is a columnist for the Calgary Herald.

Originally published in the Calgary Herald, April 4, 2010.

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