For some reason I think morality remains a gray area where atheists can successfully challenge us or at least put us in a state of confusion where we vehemently disagree but can’t easily explain our position. A few years ago Sam Harris issued a challenge to refute his book on morality because, he said, none of the usual critics made compelling arguments, ie people thought they were clear but they absolutely failed to convince Harris himself.
Last year he announced a winner, a philosophy teacher from some university. I don’t know if that essay convinced Harris or someone just had to win the prize, I’m pretty sure it won’t convince us as devotees. There should be a better way.
The premise of Harris’ book is that we don’t need religion to be moral. This question can be postulated in many ways and recently I saw lat Christopher Hitchens posing it before a panel of four Christian debaters. I think it’s easier for us to answer Hitchens and then dealing with Harris should become easier.
Hitchens question was about examples of moral behavior that couldn’t be replicated by atheists. That is to show examples where we would absolutely need religion to be moral. He offered the answer himself – tithing, and one of the Christians on the panel went with it, and, I think, in the right direction, but they all got sidetracked and the moderator moved onto the next topic.
Let’s think about Hitchens question for a bit first. They way he sees morality the answer, indeed, might not exist, just as he hopes. As an atheist he refutes the very idea of transcendence. Moral values for him, therefore, must make sense in empirical terms. As a result of some moral action something must quantifiably become better, he won’t accept some unseen, imaginary benefits.
What follows from this demand on morality is that all material results must have material causes and, therefore, can be duplicated by materialists without any need for God. The quantifiable improvement in some parameter should be enough to justify the activity. Just like Sam Harris in his book, published a bit later, Hitchens reduces morality to empirical improvements in people’s lives.
Feeding the poor, helping the hungry, giving shelter to the sick and curing the homeless are examples of such actions. Everybody accepts them as moral and religions do a great job in encouraging the public to help the needy but atheists can rationalize them in their own way, too. Once the rationalization is there, they can start acting. Social democracy in Western Europe is one example how secular states take moral obligations very seriously, perhaps even more seriously than local churches. We can expand the list with values like honesty or hard work with the same effect. Vegans do not need God, for example. One can easily see the strength of Hitchens’ argument here.
We, as devotees, shouldn’t fall into this trap. We shouldn’t accept Hitchens’ definition of morality. It’s an easy thing to do because we, out the softness of our hearts, would agree to discuss examples acceptable to our opponents and try to prove need for God on their own terms, to show that their own reasoning is inconsistent. I’m afraid this concession won’t help us here.
Mundane morality, taken from dictionaries and encyclopedias, should be of no value to us whatsoever. Regardless of what everyone says, mundane moral behavior is worthless to us. Our sole anchor of morality is Kṛṣṇa. Whatever is pleasing to Him is moral, everything else is useless and irrelevant. We do not care for the sick and needy, we do not care for honesty and even vegetarianism. Compassion has no value to us and we have no interest in performing our duties. Nothing considered valuable in this world has any value for us, only if Kṛṣṇa somehow expresses His preferences.
In light of recent Charlie Hebdo massacre, terrorism is not particularly immoral for us, either, we just don’t care – it has nothing to do with Kṛṣṇa so it’s neither good nor bad and we don’t want to entangle ourselves with these issues. Of course, as a Muslim problem, it has something to do with God so it’s not completely outside of our purview but our sympathy towards Islam can only go so far. They still have their mosque on the site of Janmasthāna, I don’t think it pleases Kṛṣṇa very much, so their very existence could very well be immoral by our standard. Somehow He tolerates them there and so does Lord Caitanya in Māyāpura so we tolerate them as well.
OTOH, everything is connected to the Lord – see Muslims, so we can justify mundane morality from Kṛṣṇa conscious POV, too, albeit in a very long and roundabout way. We can show how moral actions are in the mode of goodness and more of goodness would eventually help people appreciate God’s message but this is Kali Yuga, no one would last long enough to reap the benefits, everyone will be swallowed by passion and ignorance and plunged into the depths of hell first. It’s not the time when a smidge of goodness can lead one to self-realization.
Trying to find connection to Kṛṣṇa in mundane morality is not going to help our arguments against atheists either. We might see the connection, they won’t. It’s the same thing with the rest of the universe – devotees see it as Kṛṣṇa’s energy and this vision works great for their consciousness but it has no influence on atheists whatsoever, they just think we are delusional. Morality is just one other thing where they can’t see God. On that note, even if Kṛṣṇa Himself appeared before them they wouldn’t see Him as God, so taking the discussion down that road is going to be fruitless.
In answer to Hitchens question William Lane Craig (I think it was him) gave example of tithe, donating 10% of your income to church. For Christians it’s a moral deed but Hitchens refused to accept it as such. He said tithe has no moral value for him, just as expected. Craig also mentioned evangelism, which is probably the best example from Christianity. They preach because they want to glorify God, it’s their saṇkīrtana, and it has not material value. Atheists can’t justify it and can’t replicate it.
What they can do is to find their substitutes. Tithe could be compared to charity and evangelism to promotion of science but here we should remember the principal difference again – by our actions we want to please God and therefore we consider them moral. Atheists want to please someone else and therefore we consider their actions immoral. This whole universe is a perverted reflection of the spiritual world so the fact they have their substitutes doesn’t mean anything.
To sum it up – answering atheist challenges on morality on their own terms could very well be impossible, we should reject their definition first, offer ours instead, and then see if there could be any further discussion. Probably not.