Should atheists use terms like good and evil?

The follow is a post from a moral philosopher named Alonzo Fyfe arguing that yes we should. I wanted to post it because I have heard a lot of atheists (I used to say it myself) who won’t use moral terms when discussing morality. His blog is located here.

“Finishing up this week’s theme on how nice atheists should be I would like to note a continuing deficiency among atheist writers – the degree to which they shun genuine moral language – terms like virtue and evil.

Even though they deny a necessary relationship between religion and morality on an intellectual level, when it comes to actually using moral language it is as if they feel ashamed or nervous. It is as if they hold that the use of a moral term is like quoting a biblical passage – something that no decent atheist could do.

I have a nice definition of evil that has nothing to do with any type of God or supernatural entity – that makes reference only to things found in nature.

A person is evil to the degree that he has malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit (because that desire tends to thwart other desires), or to the degree that he lacks a malleable desire that people generally have reason to promote (because that desire tends to fulfill other desires).

Conveniently, saying that somebody is evil means directing people generally to afflict condemnation on that person. Being identified as, “somebody who has malleable desires that tends to thwart other desires’ should be enough to make anybody nervous. It says that he (and people like him) are a rational target for condemnation. It directs people generally to treat the target individual with hostility, and this is something that no individual has reason to seek.

None of this requires any type of supernatural or divine element.

Of course, many religious people will raise the challenge, “How can you call me evil? You do not believe in a God. Without a God there is no morality. Your assertion that I am evil is, itself, an admission that there is a God from which evil springs.”

This type of circular reasoning is to be expected from a bunch of self-serving, hate-mongering bigots. “You want to think this because it gives you an excuse to make arrogant presumptions as to your own moral superiority. You like the thought that you are morally above everybody else, so you desperately grab onto whatever excuse touches your brain that gives you the ego stroking you so desperately crave.”

This is as legitimate an answer as any, and one that can be sufficiently demonstrated. People generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit the type of egoistic self-importance exhibited in the remark the comment above is responding to. The moral tool that they have for inhibiting arrogance is by targeting examples of arrogance (even fictional examples of arrogance as depicted in art, for example) with condemnation and ridicule.

There are two unfortunate consequences of the atheist disposition to avoid actual moral language.

The first is that it yields the moral ground to the theists. It perpetuates the myth that morality only springs from religion when moral claims only come from those who profess to have a religious moral authority. When atheists make moral claims, and they mean what they say, it gets people accustomed to the idea of morality coming from a non-religious source. It would be useful for people to get a stronger taste of this type of claim.

The second is that it leaves fertile ground on which to grow the types of entities that the people generally have reason to inhibit. If we are not calling people evil when they are evil, if we are shying away from applying the social tool of condemnation whose main use is to inhibit that which is condemned.

If we do not take steps to actively weed the social garden, we should not be at all surprise to find our garden dominated by weeds. And if you do not take steps to feed and water the good plants growing in the garden, we should not be surprised to discover that the good plants have shriveled up, failing in competition to the weeds and noxious plants that we allowed to flourish.

In using moral terms, it is important to use them accurately. There are also problems associated with praising that which people generally have the most and strongest reasons to inhibit (unknown to them, perhaps), and with inhibiting that which they have reason to promote. The use of moral language demands a certain amount of moral responsibility in making sure it is used accurately.

But not using moral language carries a certain amount of moral irresponsibility. Not using moral language means leaving fertile ground for immorality to grow. In the case of atheist reluctance to use moral language, it feeds the illusion that morality belongs in the realm of the theist. Neither effect can be counted as a good thing.”

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This entry was posted in reprint.

5 comments on “Should atheists use terms like good and evil?

  1. Eupraxsophy says:

    The fundamental bases of all virtues is truth. Truth has no weakness and integrity is it’s strength. It may not be the greatest of all virtues, but it is the most important one because none of the other virtues can exist without it. It is what gives all of the other virtues the integrity to stand on. And it should be the foundation of all virtues.

    And the greatest truth that anyone can have to know of themselves is humility. Admiration of truth is in vain if it does not inspire us to be brave in facing the truths about ourselves. Humility gives one the wisdom to see both the ugliness and beauty that resides in truth. Humility is the valiant that stands with integrity against the coward known as pride.

    If the Bible is the truth and the Word of God, then why does it say Old Testament implying that it is a book of testamonies from witnesses and in Genesis 1:1 it says; “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth”, then who is the witness to this event?
    Some biblical scholars will say it was Moses that wrote the Torah. But then again how could he be the witness to God creating Heaven and Earth if it happen BEFORE he was even born? This to me is deceptive and deception is the wisdom of pride. The Bible starts off with nothing more than speculation and not any known truth. It’s foundation has no integrity because it is not founded on truth.

    As Jesus said; “The wise man builds his house (faith,beliefs) upon the rock (truth) and the fool builds his house upon the sand (deception)”, this statement means to base your beliefs on truth as oppose to basing your truths on beliefs is the way of the wise. It also contradicts the beginning of the Bible. And truth never contradicts itself. So then how can the Bible be true if it contradicts itself?

    Here’s something to think about:
    Knowledge and wisdom are the subjects to the nobility of truth, so if thy caution thyself not to be the fool yet thy have a boastful tongue then let it be that which rest upon thy head the Crown of Truth. For integrity of the wise is found in truth, so where shall it be found in that of the fool? And this above all things to thy own self be true.

    Be objective to that which you are naive to as oppose to being ignorant to that which you are doubtful of and weigh that which is given consideration to, with truth.

  2. Sam says:

    I am a Christian, may I offer a response?
    “If the Bible is the truth and the Word of God, then why does it say Old Testament implying that it is a book of testamonies from witnesses and in Genesis 1:1 it says; “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth”, then who is the witness to this event?
    Some biblical scholars will say it was Moses that wrote the Torah. But then again how could he be the witness to God creating Heaven and Earth if it happen BEFORE he was even born? This to me is deceptive and deception is the wisdom of pride.”
    This ‘alleged contradiction’ defeats itself. The only direct witness to to Gen 1:1 (creation of the universe) was God. The Prophet Moses wasn’t born before the universe existed. In fact, no human being witnessed the very beginning of the universe. Rather, it is revelation from God Himself, written by a human being, in human language, in human words, God’s Word. “Every word of God proves true; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him (Prov 30:5). This is why we call it God’s Word, because He reveals what He did. And yes, truth includes using ordinary language to describe phenomena such as the ‘sun rising’ or the ‘rain falling,’ approximation/round numbers, loose or free quotations, or parellel accounts of the same event (such as in the Gospels).

  3. Eupraxsophy says:

    Re: Sam

    So just because it says that every word of God proves true your going to assume then that is the truth?
    Are you weighing it with known truths and being objective about it? If God inspired others to write the Bible for him then that would not be a testimony, it would be hear-say. Does it say Old Hear-Say, or Old Fables? No it doesn’t! It says Old Testimony! Meaning that there are witnesses. If your god is going to establish his laws he shouldn’t be so careless about doing it so. Don’t you think that even laws should be founded on truth?

    The point that I’m trying to get across is do you KNOW that the Bible is the Word of God and the Truth, or do you have Faith that it is the Word of God and the Truth? Does your truths require faith to make them true? Even faith should be founded on truth, otherwise it has no integrity to be true. Faith is belief, trust, and hope in something that you don’t know is true. So if your going to have faith in something then why not be objective about it first instead of just assuming it to be true? The only difference between faith and ignorance is the truth.
    One does not choose to be naive, but one does choose to be ignorant. And that is not my choice to be ignorant in ignoring the truth because it’s too important to do so.

    And yes this alleged contradiction does defeat itself because the Bible is nothing more than allogations, and that God allegedly created Heaven and Earth because it has not been proven or even been established as being true.

    If one subjects themself as being their own witness, then one subjects themself to the consequences of truth.

  4. zntneo says:

    @Sam: I do not quite see how this is relevant to the article I posted.

  5. Randy Berry says:

    LOL, you give a general response from those who believe in god as to evil and morality. And then your response to that in your next sentence is… “This type of circular reasoning is to be expected from a bunch of self-serving, hate-mongering bigots”. Really?!! I see more self-serving and hate in your response than in the response given by those who believe in god. And your response was about 3 sentences shorter. I think that says it all.

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