An Atheist’s Conversion

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
19th March 2011

Tagged: atheism morality

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In 2011 an atheist, philosophy professor has recounted his repentance in the magazine “Philosophy Now”.

He is Professor Emeritus Joel Marks of the University of New Haven, Connecticut. A moralist and ethicist, he regularly writes a column: “Moral Moments”.   He is a vegan by ethical persuasion, quite passionately opposed to vivisection and other common uses of animals. His basic position in ethical debate has been to oppose utilitarianism in favour of Kantian ethics. He describes his life prior to his conversion as: “morality has been the essence of my existence, both personally and professionally.”

However, Prof. Marks has come to understand the error of his years of atheistic, philosophical, moral arguments. Turning his philosophic eye on his “own largely unexamined assumption”, he goes so far as to call himself “a moral fool”. His long standing religious prejudice shows when he describes his conversion as “my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality.”

This has long been an attack keenly felt by atheists. They detest the idea that religion has a monopoly on morality. Yet, Christianity is so intimately connected to western ethics, that teaching normative morality has been a reason given for the religious education of children. Atheists often defend their position from the suggestion that they are in any way less moral than religious people. It is a matter of great delight to some atheists when Christians are seen to be immoral, as it indicates not only hypocrisy on the part of the Christians involved, but also the failure of Christianity to demonstrate its superiority over atheistic ethics. 

But Prof. Marks has been converted. He has repented of his previous soft atheistic commitment to morality without God. He has seen and conceded the truth that “atheism implies amorality”. He now sees that for the atheist: morality and theology are much the same – intuition and imaginings. These may have had some beneficial evolutionary function but when we take them seriously as signifying “a reality beyond themselves, we are just day dreaming.”

This attitude to morality is a huge shift for a man who has committed his life to the rational defence and advocacy of morality without God. It was such a shift that he stayed at home and wrote a book about it for he saw it had consequences for every aspect of life. He knew he had to reconsider how to live or even whether such a life was viable.

Sadly Prof. Marks’ conversion was not from atheism to Christianity but rather from morality to amorality. As he puts it “I became convinced that atheism implies amorality, and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality.” This is a poor piece of logic for a professional philosopher. He could just as easily conclude that “atheism implies amorality and since I am a moralist I must therefore embrace theism.” But presumably he felt his reasoning about God was more secure than his reasoning about morality – even though his commitment to amorality raised the question of whether such a life was even viable.

So his essay in “Philosophy Now” is an explanation of living amorally – that is, living without morality. It unintentionally demonstrates that atheism effectively guts the authority, legitimacy, rationality and power of normal moral dialogue to persuade and move people to act beyond self-interest. His moral discourse now becomes an irrelevant deceit used by a clever manipulator who wishes to impose his desires upon others. Believing things to be ‘right or wrong’, ‘good or evil’, ‘just or unjust’ is “just day-dreaming”. Therefore discussion of these things is just word games used to “promote” his “desires” and to “influence” other people. If, as an amoral atheist he cannot persuade by these clever word games, he will seek to move people by hoping their ‘heartstrings’ are attuned to his. If that fails, he will take recourse to the tyranny of the majority – “the sheer force of numbers” – to bring about his desires by economic or political force. To win the majority over to his “way of seeing (and feeling) things” he sees no problem in using “advertising campaigns and celebrity endorsements”. Because he no longer has to care about “being honest or not” he effectively admits that “additional tactics would become available to me.”  Behold the birth of the principles and practice of propaganda! 

His essay tries to defend his new amoral life of consistent atheism. He tries to answer the accusations of hypocrisy and deceit, egoism and relativism. But he confuses his own (morally trained) personal preferences with the new world order he has entered where he no longer needs to act morally, nor can he reasonably expect or ask others to do the same.  He acknowledges that egoism is not simply being selfish. But he fails to see that self-government is essentially self-centredness. That, by basing all his decisions, even apparently altruistic actions, upon his own desires is to declare his own self as paramount. His sees relativistic morality as an unintelligible oxymoron and so dispenses with morality and embraces relativism. 

But that is the problem throughout his conversion.  He acknowledges that by failing to examine his assumptions he became “a moral fool.” But yet, he continues to “retain my belief (or assumption) in Truth (sic) as such, as well as my pig-headed allegiance to it.” This pig-headed allegiance to Truth is strange for a man who admits that, strictly speaking as an amoralist, he is indifferent to honesty. He acknowledges that his attitudes are no more rational than ‘desire’ and ‘want’. Maybe if he were to examine his beliefs and assumptions about Truth he may discover that atheism implies arationality every bit as much as amorality.