“The implications of my atheism were incompatible with almost every value I held dear”

We all know that churches in the first world have lost numbers over the past century, with many people leaving the faith of their parents to become atheists, agnostics, vague theists, believers in other religions, or just indifferent. We may not always be so aware of a number of people making the journey in the opposite direction, from unbelief to faith. Some studies suggest that highly educated people may be more likely to convert.

This is a story of one such convert. It is all the more interesting because her conversion came out of considering one of several significant philosophical difficulties for atheism.

Sarah Irving-Stonebraker, this was your life

Sarah must have been highly intelligent from her childhood, because at age 8 she says she knew she wanted to study History at Cambridge University. Growing up in a secular family in Australia, she arrived at Sydney University as a secular humanist. She knew who she was, what her values were and what she wanted to be, and none of that required faith, it was based on “self-evident truths”.

She won the University medal and a scholarship to Cambridge to study for her PhD, and entered Kings College believing “Christians were anti-intellectual and self-righteous”.

After completing her PhD, she began research at Oxford University, where she had the opportunity to attend several lectures by Aussie philosopher and atheist Peter Singer.

Peter Singer and human value

Peter Singer is a most interesting man, with a number of endearing qualities (e.g. he donates a quarter of his income to alleviate extreme poverty) and a number of challenging moral viewpoints (e.g. he argues that infanticide can be morally acceptable under certain circumstances).

The challenging viewpoints arise from considering how human beings differ from animals, and how we can determine moral values.

Moral values

It is difficult for an atheist like Singer to establish any reasonable basis for moral values. Evolution may give us moral feelings, but sometimes we know instinctively that we shouldn’t always follow those feelings – e.g if they lead to genocide to protect “our” tribe and our genes.

But where does that instinctive feeling that genocide or pedophilia are “wrong” come from? It may be a natural feeling, but why follow it? Singer bases his ethics on utilitarianism, the belief that we “should” call actions moral if they produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He has admitted that there are philosophical and practical difficulties with this view, because it has no real basis in any observable truth.

Humans and animals

His utilitarianism also leads him to the judgment that an adult chimpanzee may be more of a “person” (i.e. a being with desires for the future) than a new born baby, hence the view that leads to the possibility of infanticide, for example, if the baby is disabled.

Sarah and Peter Singer

Sarah was a secular humanist when she attended Singer’s lectures, that is, she believed that humans had great value or worth. But Singer’s lectures helped her realise that “human equality is not a self-evident truth”.

I began to realise that the implications of my atheism were incompatible with almost every value I held dear.

Many atheists come to this point and decide they can live with their high moral values being simply subjective, either their own personal choice or the way their genetics and upbringing have led them to think. This view doesn’t really give a logical basis for the strength with which they hold to ethics like the value of human life, but there doesn’t seem to be another way for an ethical atheist to go.

But Sarah chose a different path.

Sarah and God

She began to read a little philosophical theology, and could see that theism supplies some basis for true ethics that her atheism couldn’t. But she wasn’t convinced. Perhaps there was a God, but perhaps not. She was moving from atheism to agnosticism, but she knew that agnosticism also provided no basis for her strong moral feelings and values.

On the basis of this intellectual reasoning that pointed to God, Sarah began to observe the actions of christians where she was now working as an Assistant Professor in Florida. She saw christians “feeding the homeless every week, running community centres, and housing and advocating for migrant farm laborers”, all motivated by their faith.

She knew she needed to resolve this dilemma. She “walked into a church for the first time as someone earnestly seeking God” and felt overwhelmed. She read ( why am I surprised?) CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which addresses the source of moral feelings, and apparently found three different strands coming together – the intellectual (courtesy of Singer and Lewis), the way she saw ethics being lived out by christians, and her spiritual experience of being overwhelmed by the love of God.

Take a step, learn to walk

So she took the step, “I knelt in my closet in my apartment and asked Jesus to save me, and to become the Lord of my life.” And having taken that step, she began to read theologians who could help her explore her new belief. And she was surprised to learn two things about christian belief.

Christianity is not an unthinking faith. Doubt is OK. God wants us, she came to believe, to wrestle with him and to struggle through “doubt and faith, sorrow and hope”.

Christianity is radical. It is unlike other religions: “In becoming fully human in Jesus, God behaved decidedly unlike a god.” His “sacrificial love is utterly opposed to the individualism, consumerism, exploitation, and objectification, of our culture”.

And she found that being a christian means being part of the radical new creation God is bringing into the world, “transforming this broken, unjust world”. We have work to do. We are called to serve.

Next steps

Sarah has now returned to Australia and taken up a position at a University in Sydney. You can read her account of her story in The Veritas Forum. I look forward to hearing more from her.

Photo: University of Western Sydney via The Veritas Forum

18 Comments

  1. Hi Eric,
    The line that stood out to me was “This view doesn’t really give a logical basis for the strength with which they hold to ethics like the value of human life”. Assuming that this is a paraphrase of Sarah’s thoughts and that you agree, can you clarify the objection? Is it that the originating source of a desire, feeling or value has to itself appear to have equal or greater magnitude upon reflection?

  2. Hi Travis, no that line was mine. I felt the article I linked to explained some of Sarah’s ideas and experiences, but didn’t really explain why Peter Singer’s view of morality would make such a difference to a young and idealistic humanist.

    Most atheists that I have come across would agree with Singer that there is no logical basis for objective moral truth in an evolutionary, naturalist worldview, though I know a few think otherwise. Most therefore say their ethics are either a personal choice or the natural outcome of natural selection favouring those who cooperate over against those who don’t. (I haven’t expressed that very precisely, but I’m sure you know the different positions.)

    But I have also observed that many atheists/humanists have very strong ethical values, e.g. about human rights. But I don’t think those viewpoints follow logically from evolutionary ethics, and while they can always be a personal choice, I don’t think a personal choice would be held quite so zealously. So that is what I was getting at.

    I don’t fully understand your final question. All I can say is that I feel emotionally strongly about many things – the hurt of a friend going through a painful separation, the killing of a child, the final (fictitious) scene in the film The Mission and even the time my football team won the competition for the very first time in 50 years. But while I respond to all those things passionately, the first two cases are reinforced by moral values while the last two not nearly so much. So emotion may lead to one result, but rational reflection may lead to another. Is that an answer?

  3. Eric,
    I’m trying to better understand why you “don’t think those viewpoints [strong ethical values] follow logically from evolutionary ethics”. Maybe it would help to state it in the positive form: what are the necessary properties of X for it to be true that “strong ethical values follow logically from X”?

  4. Hi Travis, I think this is well worth discussing, thanks.

    My starting point is a definition of ethical values. Many definitions seem to go in circles – ethics tell us what is right and wrong, and “right” is what is morally good. I’m going to go with the idea that ethics tell us what we “ought” to do – an obligation that may require us not to do what we would otherwise want or choose to do.

    Now I cannot see how evolutionary ethics or a personal feeling (e.g. of repugnance) can ever logically lead to an “ought”. I can understand how they might lead to a feeling of obligation, but I cannot see how that feeling can follow logically. If you think otherwise, I’d be interested to hear how.

    So to answer your question, I think to follow logically, the moral value must have objective truth, but evolution or personal preference cannot supply that.

    It is the same with any logical argument. If I say 1. All swans are white, 2. That is a black bird, 3. Therefore it is not a swan, the conclusion is only true if the premises are true – not just that I believe them to be true, but they objectively ARE true.

    So evolutionary ethics may lead to strong emotional or will commitment, and to strong behavioural outcomes, but they cannot be logical (IMO)..

  5. Hi Eric,
    Thanks. That was helpful. If I understand correctly, in the original post you were using “strong ethical values” as if it were synonymous with “commitment to moral objectivity”. While I agree that there is some correlation there, I don’t see those as the same thing and this led to my question. From this more recent comment I think I understand you to be saying that the phenomenal experience of morality (e.g., strong feelings or sense of obligation) is compatible with an evolutionary ethic but a cognitive commitment to the truth of an objective (i.e., not biologically contingent) ethic is not. If this is correct then I generally agree, though I wouldn’t go so far as to claim a logical incompatibility – one could conceivably tack-on to the evolutionary paradigm some sort of natural moral teleology but it’s hard to see how that would be an empirically justifiable account.

  6. And lest it appear that I ignored the is\ought distinction you raised, note that we can arrive at an ought by defining a goal, such as maximizing the sense of moral satisfaction. If you want to maximize moral satisfaction (or minimize moral angst) then you ought to do X because the end result will realize the stated goal. However, if one is seeking to place the ought in relation to an objective moral truth then a subjectively framed goal is not sufficient and this leads to the difficulty you observed. Of course the flip side is that you have only the subjective, phenomenal experience by which to measure correspondence, so the two scenarios are epistemically indistinguishable.

  7. Hi Travis,

    “From this more recent comment I think I understand you to be saying that the phenomenal experience of morality (e.g., strong feelings or sense of obligation) is compatible with an evolutionary ethic but a cognitive commitment to the truth of an objective (i.e., not biologically contingent) ethic is not.”

    You are a more rigorous thinker than I am, but yes, I think this is what I meant. But I’d add a little to what you say.

    1. I think naturalists/atheists often speak as if an action is truly and objectively immoral, even though they don’t in fact believe there can be truly objective morals. e.g. they may strongly support the UN declaration on human rights.

    2. Both our repugnance at an action (say rape or genocide) and our sense that it is truly and objectively wrong will produce feelings and judgments. If someone doesn’t believe there are objective moral truths, then they lack that source of feelings. So their feelings and judgments will, in general, be weaker than those who have feelings from both sources (repugnance and objective ethics). But I think many atheists have just as strong feelings as I do about some moral questions, which seems surprising or inconsistent.

    ” Of course the flip side is that you have only the subjective, phenomenal experience by which to measure correspondence, so the two scenarios are epistemically indistinguishable.”

    I understood everything up to here, but I’m not with you here, I’m sorry.

  8. Hi Eric,
    I don’t necessarily disagree with your two points but I think the implications are overstated. On #1, there is a fairly substantial contingent of atheists who claim objective morality and I suspect that they contribute much to the perception you raise. I also think that many anti-realists suppose a nearly universal moral sense and speak in absolutes even though they would grant that the sense is contingent. Of course, some also just haven’t thought through everything and are assuming a naive realism. That all contributes to your observation in #2 and though I grant that a belief in an objective morality generally does seem to strengthen our commitment to those morals, I don’t see it to have the significance you infer. I would suggest that the belief is better understood as a derivative of the emotional component, as with Haidt’s emotional elephant, and as observed by noting that the claims which yield the strongest emotions are also those for which we are least willing to surrender objectivity.

    My statement that we “have only the subjective, phenomenal experience by which to measure correspondence, so the two scenarios are epistemically indistinguishable” was only to point out that we have nothing to which we can appeal to know whether our sense of obligation is directed toward fulfilling an objective truth or some contingent, subjective desire. Even those who suppose that a moral claim corresponds with an objective truth are relying on their subjective impressions about the moral status of the claim to make that assessment.

  9. Hi Travis, thanks for those points. It seems we kind of agree about your first paragraph. But I have been wondering about your statement (reflecting Haidt) that “the claims which yield the strongest emotions are also those for which we are least willing to surrender objectivity” and I’m not sure I think that’s always true of me. Of course I feel repulsed by some gross crimes and I also believe they are wrong. But christianity teaches that sins like pride and unforgiveness are actually more dangerous, and I believe that strongly too, but I don’t have a high emotional response to them. Perhaps all Haidt is saying is that, overall and on average, that statement is true and I wouldn’t know enough to argue about it.

    But I quite strongly disagree about this: “Even those who suppose that a moral claim corresponds with an objective truth are relying on their subjective impressions about the moral status of the claim to make that assessment.” After 50+ years as a christian believer, me assessment of ethics is baed very strongly on my commitment to the teachings of Jesus which I regard as ethically true, and much less on a subjective impression. Or have I missed the point?

  10. Eric,
    I think I probably have a broader definition of emotion than you’re using. I’m referring to any sort of phenomenon that we might call a feeling, desire, drive, passion, etc…, not just repulsion. So when you speak of strong beliefs and commitments I think that your use of that language itself betrays an underlying emotional component. And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that this is deficient. That is at the core of being human. Those who see the world through a dispassionate, calculating utilitarianism are more likely to do harm. I’m also not saying that beliefs are impotent, but most everything I’ve read suggests that our moral judgments and behaviors are far more correlated to emotion than to rational thought, with the latter acting more as a post-hoc rationalization of the former, even if we don’t see it that way.

    As for your last statement, recall that the context was with respect to the epistemology of a moral ontology. The esteem with which you hold the teachings attributed to Jesus is just an intermediate layer. I would be very surprised if you said that you would hold those words with the same esteem if they condoned activities that you found morally objectionable, so it is the content more than the source which informs their “truthiness” and, as above, the content resonates predominately because of the emotional states which arise in response.

  11. Hi Travis, thanks for continuing the conversation.

    “I think I probably have a broader definition of emotion than you’re using.”
    I think you have read more widely than I have on these issues, and you are more rigorous in your language, both of which I respect.

    “So when you speak of strong beliefs and commitments I think that your use of that language itself betrays an underlying emotional component.”
    My intention was to describe how much a person was committed to their ethics. I guess that is emotional in your sense, but it is also volitional and, in the end, a matter of discipline whether we try to live up to our ethics.

    “our moral judgments and behaviors are far more correlated to emotion than to rational thought, with the latter acting more as a post-hoc rationalization of the former,”
    Look, clearly this happens, I don’t see how anyone can deny it. For example, if we were all totally rational like Dr Spock, would these blog discussions on religion ever get off the ground. Humanly, when my beliefs are criticised, my first reaction is to want to defend them come what may. I imagine most christians and most atheists are the same. The interesting question for me is what happens next.

    When I first chose to commit to being a christian (I was about 17) I was committed and would have behaved as you describe. But that was about 54 years ago. I have reviewed, challenged, read, discussed and reconsidered many of my beliefs. Some were easy to change, and may have been emotion first, rationalisation second, but some (including my original choice to commit) were done despite my emotions. And even now, my ethical choices can be according to my emotions or contrary to them. I feel emotionally very strongly about mistreatment of asylum seekers, so maybe I support that cause for that reason (though it does seem to be in accordance with Jesus’ teachings), but my view that we need to have a forgiving rather than hateful attitude to suicide bombers (while still meting out justice) is not one I feel emotionally – my emotions could easily lead me to anger and hate. So I think both ways of looking at it are sometimes true.

    “The esteem with which you hold the teachings attributed to Jesus is just an intermediate layer. I would be very surprised if you said that you would hold those words with the same esteem if they condoned activities that you found morally objectionable”
    I feel similarly about this. The fact that Jesus offers eternal life and was opposed to religious authority and spoke against wealth are all things that I would “like”. But his teachings on loving enemies, on lust, on forgiveness, non-violence and self sacrifice are not ones that I instinctively like, and took me some time to come to them. But yes, once I came to them, I could see they were “right” in a deeper way than I first thought.

    Sp I think the sort of analysis you provide is very helpful, but only part of the story – perhaps the largest part, but not the whole.

  12. Eric,
    Let me key in on one phrase to set the stage and see if I can clarify the scope of what I’m talking about. You said that

    my ethical choices can be according to my emotions or contrary to them

    whereas I would suggest that these ethical choices are an act of mediating between competing emotions, and I think there’s a very simple way to demonstrate this. Imagine a scenario which fits the description of “choosing to do right though it is contrary to your emotions”. Now imagine “giving in to your emotions” and choosing to “do wrong” in that scenario. How does this hypothetical self feel? It isn’t all roses and ice cream, right? There’s probably shame, guilt; maybe a sense of betrayal. The anticipation of those feelings are all part of what I would include in the “emotions” which informs our moral decisions. This is a big part of why people are more likely to follow their own moral compass if they think somebody else may be aware of their moral failings. And God is the ultimate “somebody else”.

    To be clear, I agree with your observation that it takes time for proximate emotional responses to synchronize with anticipated responses. When one adopts a philosophical framework which requires a particular normative ethic, they will experience a tension between the anticipated response and the proximate response to a violation of that ethic. As cognitive mediations favor the anticipated response and reinforce the superiority of the philosophical framework, the proximate response will diminish. I see this play out in both religious and secular frameworks. It seems to me that the entire field of philosophical ethics is a byproduct of our ability to anticipate the way we’ll feel in response to future circumstances and is an attempt to formalize that. And again, I don’t mean this to be a negative. I think that our ethics are most likely to yield the results we actually want when we broaden our horizons and try to see the big picture beyond our immediate circumstances, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is all ultimately directed toward feelings.

    Lastly, as evidenced by the paragraph above, there clearly is a part to play for cognition. It is the mediation we observe during moral deliberation. So I agree that emotions aren’t the whole story but I think they are fundamental.

  13. Hi Travis, that is helpful thanks. But I think there are two quite different aspects here, (1) How we decide what we believe to be right, and (2) How we decide whether we will act in accordance with those beliefs.

    You first paragraph is addressing (2), and I have no problem with the proposition that emotions are involved here. Even so, I don’t think they are always as determinative as you say. Take the example of a married guy meeting an attractive woman at an out-of-town business conference. His ethics may say it would be wrong to have sex with her, but his hormones might say otherwise. He may give in to the temptation and only feel the remorse later. The emotions of shame and guilt will arise, as you say, but likely after the event. But that is a minor detail. My main interest in is (1).

    I still think that (1) can often be less emotional that you say and more rational or conviction, certainly for a christian who takes the words of Jesus or the Bible seriously.. Emotion is certainly involved, and if we use the term “emotion” in the widest sense (as you suggested previously) then clearly it will be a vehicle for commitment to an ethic. But I still think my main reason for trying to be forgiving, or polite or truthful is an “ought” rather than how I feel. An example is some online discussions I have with atheists who are considerably less polite than you are. It is very tempting (emotionally) to let fly with a few assessments of their rude comments, but satisfying as that might be, it wouldn’t be right according to my understanding of Jesus-based ethics, and so I resolutely ignore the rude comments.

    So I tend to accept what you say in your second paragraph, but disagree with your final conclusion.

  14. Hey Eric,
    I still suggest that there is a predictive feeling that is being neglected in your #1. Regardless, I’m not sure there’s much else to say so I’ll just end by returning to the original observation and noting that while I agree that a belief in an objective ethic can strengthen one’s commitment to their moral judgments, I do not see that the magnitude of this is so overwhelming as to undermine the relative value allocated to the moral domain within a non-realist framework. I think that morality research and even just introspection shows that we’re not as reliant on logical foundations as we might like to think. A pleasure as usual.

  15. Do you have any evidence there is a God? Your faith-based thinking does not require facts. I personally prefer fact based thinking. Why not try atheism combined with modern Buddhism so you are fact based with plenty of the best values of any lifestyle known to man.

  16. Hi John, thanks for visiting and for your questions, comments and suggestions. Here are my answers.

    “Do you have any evidence there is a God?”
    Quite a lot actually.

    “Your faith-based thinking does not require facts.”
    Neither does yours. But my rational thinking is based on facts.

    “I personally prefer fact based thinking.”
    We agree on that then.

    “Why not try atheism combined with modern Buddhism so you are fact based with plenty of the best values of any lifestyle known to man.”
    Because I think the evidence points in another direction.

    May I ask you two questions now please? May I ask what were your reasons for commenting as you did? Did you think it would convince me you were right? Thanks.

  17. I’m also curious about this:

    Why not try atheism combined with modern Buddhism so you are fact based with plenty of the best values of any lifestyle known to man.

    What do you envision “modern Buddhism” to entail or mean? What beliefs and activities does it require? What is its aim or purpose?

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