The Theists Are Right For Once (Sort Of)
Let me be abundantly clear: Behaving morally is not the same thing as having a coherent moral system. PZ seems to be totally missing that point in his response to a Yale freshman; "atheists are amoral" may be a tired canard, but that's not the argument that's being put forward. Quoth the aforementioned froshling:
That's not to say that naturalists cannot behave morally, but merely that they can have no real and consistent reason for behaving morally. As this has been a long-standing and widespread objection to naturalism, it would seem only reasonable to expect atheists to devote careful attention to the question of morality.Ey's not suggesting that atheism inevitably leads to wife-swapping and cannibalism, but rather that those atheists who lead moral lives do so without the benefit of a coherent moral system. I'll get to that argument in a second, but first I want to talk about PZ's response.
As a rebuttal to the fresh-person's argument PZ offers the following:
I was raised in a happy family, one that reinforced that conventionally 'good' behavior, and that rewarded appropriate social behavior. I lived with good role models who offered love without conditions, who taught by example rather than with fear or threats. I live now in a family and with a community of friends who do not demand obeisance to superstition in order to give respect. I am rewarded materially and emotionally for moral behavior.Which is all well and good, but as a rational for moral behavior it hovers somewhere between 2 and 3 on the Kohlberg scale. I'm sure PZ is a much more sophisticated fellow, but for the most part his defense makes it sound like he behaves conventionally not because of strongly held beliefs, but rather because its the path of least resistance. I don't find that a particularly effective rebuttal.
Now, regarding the assertion that atheists can't have a real and consistent reason for behaving rationally: I agree that atheists need to spend more time considering the question, because atheistic systems of morality seem to be a pretty slippery subject. But, as I've said before, I do believe its possible for atheists to have self-consistent belief systems, its just not possible for them to justify preferring one system over another.