by Joey Savoie, Co-founder of Charity Science
Before getting to know your local atheist, it’s very much worth rehashing the ABCs of non-belief that run the risk of remaining little known, especially now that the skeptic community has become more interested and active in charitable causes. Public intellectuals frequenting bestseller lists on our behalf are swift to go on the offensive, but there’s something to be said for shoring up the defense as well. A real uneasiness toward atheists and their intentions seems to flow from a very common and endlessly parroted assumption–that without belief in god, anything would be allowed. Divine reprimand and reward are ultimately credited with keeping us on the straight and narrow, and often said to have provided the moral foundation for our society. A charitable movement populated with skeptics and atheists would seem counterintuitive or even completely bananas then, but nonetheless, a number of causes under the umbrella of Effective Altruism (EA) are blossoming. How do we account for this? Should we credit our learned behavior to a society built on these heavenly mandates, or is it something else?
Spoiler alert: the answer is something else.
Whether it comes from the prosaic lips of Ivan Fyodorovitch of The Brothers Karamazov, in the more contemporary form of Dinesh D’Souza, or confronted you recently one way or another, the common argument sees morality as having originated from the outside. Without a punishing set of external pressures imposed from up high, so it goes, mankind will naturally veer off into a wilderness of undesirable behavior. If we care to reexamine the ABCs of atheism, we could start with what Elizabeth Anderson aptly describes as the atheist commitment to “the expansion and growth of the human mind.” Of course, this might seem obnoxiously smug. Who would march against personal growth?
What Anderson is getting at is less about condescending to theists and more about illustrating where morality originates for atheists. Jean-Paul Sartre pre-empted her decades before by contending that morality comes from within and grows outwardly. Without wading too far into the philosophical thicket, we’ll leave you with Sartre illustrating how even personal decisions can radiate outwards, “In fashioning myself I fashion man.” Within each of us, overlapping and intertwining motivations help us fashion ourselves and our morals, and much of the time we would like to see the rest of the world follow suit. Have we met nudists that only want for the whole of humanity to shed these rags we affix to ourselves on the regular? Absolutely. Transplant this model onto an aversion to human suffering and now we’re talking.
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